City’s proposed redistricting plan presented at public hearing

Published 12:02 am Tuesday, November 17, 2015

By Megan Ashley Fink

The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — The City of Natchez unveiled a plan Monday evening that would redraw the city’s aldermen wards to more accurately reflect the racial make-up of the city.

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Natchez aldermen are expected to vote on the plan at their Nov. 24 meeting.

Chad Mask and Mike Slaughter, two consultants hired by the city, presented the new district boundary plan and answered the public’s questions and comments.

All six aldermen, the mayor, Deputy City Clerk Wendy McClain, and approximately 20 members of the public were in attendance for the hearing, including several members of the local chapter of the NAACP.

Former Natchez mayor Phillip West, who was not in attendance, along with former Adams County Justice Court Judge Mary Lee Toles, the Rev. Clifton Marvel and Jacqueline Marsaw, both with the local chapter of the NAACP, filed a lawsuit against the city in May that alleges unequal racial distribution in the drawing of Natchez’s six aldermen ward district lines. The lawsuit alleges that the current ward lines — based on the 2000 census — are drawn in a way that “fractures geographically concentrated African-American populations and dilutes African-American voting strength.”

Marvel, who attended Monday’s public hearing, said the meeting was the first time NAACP leaders had seen the redistricting plan and did not have an opinion on it yet.

“There’s no way we can approve of it at the pluck of a finger,” Marvel said.

Marvel said the NAACP would prepare an opinion on the plan in the next week and will advise the board of aldermen of the NAACP’s approval or disapproval.

Marvel would not comment on whether the lawsuit would be dropped if the NAACP approved of the plan.

City Attorney Hyde Carby said the city was forced by a court deadline to provide a redistricting plan in response to the lawsuit, but said the plan filed with the court may differ from the one presented publicly on Monday.

The board of aldermen discussed the plan on multiple occasions behind closed doors in executive session, citing the litigation exception of the open meetings law.

“The (plan) that was presented to the board for purposes of litigation may not be the one that is adopted,” Carby said.

Carby then said the plan discussed in private was the same as the one presented in the public hearing, but clarified that the board had not voted in executive session to adopt any plan.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneux-Mathis said that she was so far is in favor of the plan.

“Right now, it looks pretty good,” Mathis said.

In the proposed plan, the black voting population increases the most in Ward 5, currently represented by white alderman Mark Fortenbery.

Under the current ward lines, blacks represent 57.5 percent of the total population in Ward 5. Under the new plan, blacks would have a 65-percent representation.

Voting age population in Ward 5, under the new plan, would increase from 52.5 percent to 60 percent.

While the black vote strengthened under the proposed plan in Ward 5, it decreased in others.

Total black population in Ward 2 went from 97.6 percent to 89.8 percent. Voting age population shifted from 97.6 percent to 88.6 percent.

Ward 4 showed a decrease in total black population from 73.2 percent to 71.8 percent, and voting age population dropped from 69.7 percent to 68.3 percent.

Ward 6 showed a drop from 36.6 percent to 28.7 percent for total black population, and the voting age population decreased from 31.6 percent to 25.2 percent.

Wards 1 and 3 were left relatively unchanged.

Under the current ward lines and the proposed plan, blacks have the majority vote in wards 1, 2, 4 and 5.

The proposed ward lines are based on the 2010 census. The current ward lines are based on the 2000 census.

The city previously attempted to redistrict its wards in 2011 — when pre-clearance was required by the U.S. Department of Justice for redistricting.

That plan was denied, leaving ward lines unchanged.

The DOJ contended that the rejected plan reduced the voting age black population in Ward 5 to 46 percent, and that the city appeared to have drawn the lines that way because blacks were on the verge of winning a fourth seat on the six-member board of aldermen.