Temperatures Rise at Charleston Redistricting Meeting

The NerveBy Marc Knapp
Citizen Reporter

Some weeks ago, the Charleston City Council earned praise for its responsiveness and responsibility, but after the May 10 redistricting public hearing that praise may have been mistaken.

The body was deadlocked for some time during its council meeting on proceeding with redistricting plans. If the deadlock were not broken, it would have been impossible to delineate the boundaries of voting districts before the election in November. Boundaries needed to be redrawn in the light of the 2010 census.

What was most stunning was the reluctance of many council members to attempt to craft a compromise. It seemed that some council members wanted the city to fail in finding a compromise.

Whatever the injustice, whatever the legal risks, whatever the opprobrium, they were prepared to live with it. One can only speculate on their motives.

Council member Kathleen Wilson was absent for the early part of the meeting and did not participate in the first part of the discussion and subsequent vote.

The vote was over the motion to accept Redistricting Plan C2, defined by city staff, but to work on issues relating to the plan before the second reading of the ordinance.

Six council members opposed the plan and although Mayor Joe Riley and five council members supported the motion, it failed because there was no majority. See all the redistricting plans considered by council here.

Councilman F. Gary White Jr., obviously conscious of the seriousness of the deadlock, challenged those who opposed the motion to make one of their own. The silence was deafening.

There was no effort on the part of the dissident council members to overcome the deadlock.

Riley moved on with the agenda but brought the redistricting issue back up when Wilson arrived in the chamber. There was chaos and mayhem thereafter with the mayor barely in control.

Dissident councilmen Jimmy Gallant III, Timothy Mallard and William Dudley Gregorie were loudly vocal in opposing Riley’s efforts to resuscitate the issue. It was against Roberts Rules of Order, they said.

Not so, said the mayor; if one of the members of the prevailing side wanted to reopen the issue because of a change in mind, then it was allowed. Councilman Dean Riegel volunteered to change his vote with a modest proviso that staff look at including all of Shadow Moss subdivision in his electorate.

A vote was again taken and with that of councilmen Wilson and Riegel, life was restored to city redistricting. The city was again to look at redistricting and consider the requests of Gregorie and Riegel in defining boundaries in the C2 plan. The council members that remained opposed to the motion were Gregorie, Mallard, Gallant, Blake Hallman and James Lewis Jr.

The core of the issue, at least for some of the dissident council members was the possible loss of African-American representation on council. There had been a significant decline in the ratio of African Americans to the total population in the 10 years before the 2010 census.

At the same time, the population of the city had grown 20 percent. It follows from this that without significant gerrymandering – not allowed by the Department of Justice – it would not be possible to preserve the same number of majority/minority districts that existed over the past 10 years.

African Americans now comprise only 25 percent of the voting population and therefore making it near impossible to produce more than three majority/minority districts.

In our opinion, the city tried hard in crafting plans that would maximize the majority/minority districts but it was not possible to preserve those that existed before. In all of the city plans, much of the districts of Gallant and Lewis were to be combined.

Also, the ratio of minorities in Gregorie’s district would decline.

Gregorie accused the staff of ignoring his requests for changing boundaries and he noted, as did some citizens, that the Westside would now be split among three districts. Riegel also protested the split of some subdivisions into different districts.

Tim Keane defended the efforts of staff, as did many council members. There had been a number of workshops and the city had listened and gone back and refined plans in the light of such discussion.

Plan C and C2, the latter being only modestly different from C, had the smallest deviation of any of the plans, the major objective in defining district boundaries (deviation is the measure of variance from the average population of each voting. If there were a variance of 0, it would mean that every district had exactly the same population).

Because of other limitations it is virtually impossible to eliminate all deviation. Areas in districts have to be contiguous, and boundaries must run around and not through census blocs.

Some council members and citizens said that race should not matter in defining districts. Council members should serve all of their electorate regardless of its composition. Indeed one council member said that the broad community over the past 40 years or so had become totally desegregated and we should not be influenced by race.

But we continue to ask why there was no effort to break the deadlock on council before Wilson arrived? And worse, why was there such hostility to breaking the deadlock? Could it be tied to council members trying to embarrass the mayor?

Would it seem to weaken his position going into the November elections and in some way favor Gregorie, who is running for the office, or Mallard, who is rumored to planning to run?

Of course, using the old electoral boundaries would not force Lewis and Gallant to compete for the new district created by the merger of their original districts. And why did Hallman oppose the redistricting? What does he fear?

The overlying dissent seemed to be more about protecting individual council members rather than representing citizens.