Decatur officials soon will decide whether to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to take a second look at a controversial three-district plan establishing a council-manager form of government.
Mayor Don Kyle, in an attempt to keep a campaign promise, said he will recommend the City Council request an answer from the DOJ on the plan, which would divide residents into three equal districts of roughly 18,000. If such a plan is approved, that would dilute District 1’s black majority from 56 percent to a 37 percent minority.
“There’s a perception out there that it’s not final, and we need to do what we can to make it final,” Kyle said. “I don’t have any criticism for the way the council handled it, but our citizens need a definitive answer from the Justice Department so we can all move forward.”
Kyle and his runoff opponent, Carl Cole, said during their campaigns before the October mayoral election that upholding the 2010 voter referendum calling for a city manager form of government is a priority.
After submitting the plan for federal approval in 2011, the council unanimously agreed to withdraw it from consideration last year, under the assumption that it would not be pre-cleared.
The issue appears to be headed for a divided five-member council. Council President Gary Hammon and newly elected District 5 Councilman Chuck Ard said they would support asking the DOJ to revisit the plan. But District 1’s Billy Jackson, District 2’s Roger Anders and Charles Kirby of District 4 said they are opposed to going through the process again.
Although Jackson voted to withdraw the plan at the time, he said other council members had a responsibility to follow the plan through to the end because their constituents requested the change. His district voted overwhelmingly against the 2010 referendum.
“This seems to be a dead issue that we’re trying to bring back to life,” Jackson said.
Kirby said the city should focus on other issues, like maintaining streets, rights of way and alleys.
“The bottom line is that this was a defective effort from the start and had more to do with public confidence in City Hall,” Kirby said. “I feel that confidence has improved considerably and will continue to improve. If the voters truly had a mandate for a manager, then they would have elected a different mayor, a part-time mayor.”
Cole ran on a platform to hire a city manager, slash the mayor’s pay by half and reduce the position to one of a figurehead and long-term planner. He lost to Kyle in the runoff 56 percent to 44 percent.
“This is just raking up scar tissue,” Kirby said.
Anders said he would have to see a “glaring change” in the three-district plan demographics to support sending it to the DOJ a second time.
“I’m open to listening, but I don’t see anything changing if the Justice Department will be evaluating the same plan,” he said. “The people of Decatur had a choice between two mayors: Mayor A, who said he would get a city manager, and Mayor B, who said he would be mayor. The people voted overwhelmingly to elect Mayor B.”
If the council were to ask the DOJ to take another look, it could include another twist.
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide a case this term that could eliminate a city’s need for preclearance on redistricting. Shelby County’s suit against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder requests that it be exempt from Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires federal approval of any election changes in states with a history of discrimination.
“It certainly could impact us and many other municipalities and counties,” said City Attorney Herman Marks, who came under fire during the mayoral campaign for advising the council to withdraw the three-district plan.
“But our focus right now is getting this to the council for them to decide whether they want the Justice Department to review the plan again and make a determination.”
Marks said he did not want to speculate on what could happen with the Supreme Court case or anything beyond the council vote.
“Anything that happens afterward, we’re just going to have to continue to monitor,” he said. “We hope that if Justice evaluates it again, we would have an answer before the Supreme Court’s ruling.”
Oral arguments for Shelby County v. Holder are scheduled for March, with a ruling expected in June.
In the run-up to the referendum vote, it was pointed out that voting for a new form of city government may be an exercise of futility.
That’s because apparently no mathematical equation exists that allows the concept of “one man, one vote” and a minority-majority district to co-exist in Decatur.
Since at-large council districts were eliminated in 1988, District 1 has maintained a roughly 60-percent black majority. However, U.S. Census data shows that during the past 20 years, black residents, historically concentrated in the northwest quadrant, have migrated to the southwest and southeast parts of town.
Drawing district lines to create a black majority is difficult. The only way to maintain a black majority district is to make it significantly smaller than others. Currently, District 1 has about 9,700 residents. The other four range from 11,000 to 11,800.
When evaluating redistricting plans, the Justice Department doesn’t use predetermined or fixed demographics as guidance. However, election history, voting patterns within the jurisdiction, voter registration and turnout information are considered in the assessment process. It will consider how the redistricting plan would affect minorities’ ability to elect the candidate of their choice and the ability of that official to affect policy.
The Decatur City Council soon will consider whether to ask the U.S. Justice Department to review again for possible pre-clearance a district map that could establish a council-manager form of government. Below, demographics of the current five-district map and the proposed three-district map, based on 2010 Census data:
Current five-district, council-mayor
District Population % black % non-black
1 9,698 56 percent 44 percent
2 11,825 15 percent 85 percent
3 11,588 15 percent 85 percent
4 11,516 19 percent 81 percent
5 11,056 12 percent 88 percent
Proposed three-district, council-manager
District Population % black % non-black
1 18,296 37 percent 63 percent
2 18,968 14 percent 86 percent
3 18,419 17 percent 83 percent
CITY OF DECATUR
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