Greensboro councilman attempted to keep redistricting maps secret

by Jordan Green

A Greensboro City Council member appointed as redistricting liaison attempted to persuade the city’s geographic information systems manager to keep maps out of the public eye when the city received new Census numbers last winter.

“As the appointed city council liaison, I request that you do not show anyone other than you and me how the Census interacts with our redistricting, if indeed the a [SIC] redrawing is even necessary,” District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny wrote in a March 2 e-mail to Geographic Information Systems Manager Stephen Sherman. “The Census data is, of course, open as a public document and anyone can obtain. I am simply asking for just the maps to be kept private until public comment has been heard.

“Unfortunately, this has become a hot topic and we need to be focused on the city, the Census, precincts, etc.,” the councilman added as an explanation for his request for secrecy.

The e-mails are part of a 172-page set of exchanges between council members and staff on the topic of redistricting that were recently posted on the document-sharing website Scribd.

Matheny was appointed redistricting liaison in a 6-3 vote after a motion by District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade. An earlier motion by at-large Councilman Robbie Perkins to appoint an at-large representative that would ostensibly be more impartial failed, with Matheny, Wade, Mayor Bill Knight,

Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan, at-large Councilman Danny Thompson and District 4 Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw voting against it.

“The goal for me is to release something that is a completed project, not a work in progress,” Matheny said last week when asked about his request to Sherman.

The e-mail had been carbon copied to Assistant City Manager Denise Turner, who often serves as an intermediary in matters involving council members’ involvement with staff.

“I explained to him that it would be public record the moment it was created,” she said. “We would have to make it available the moment it was in our possession.”

The morning after receiving the e-mailed request for secrecy from Matheny, Sherman asked to discuss the matter with Turner.

Six days later, City Manager Rashad Young forwarded Matheny’s e-mail to the other eight members of council in response to a request by Perkins.

Matheny voiced his displeasure in a reply e-mail to the city manager and fellow council members.

“What is the point of this request other than we are being open and transparent with our community and abiding by the super majority of city council?” Matheny wrote. He added, “Rashad, this is unfortunate that you have your time being wasted.

On March 12, Matheny and Sherman made a presentation on the city’s redistricting process to at the downtown public library to the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress. Two days later, they spoke to citizens about redistricting at a second meeting.

Despite a council vote officially designating Matheny as the redistricting liaison, the first proposed redistricting map was received by staff Rakestraw in mid-April.

On Monday, April 18, Sherman sent an analysis of the Rakestraw map to Young, Turner and then-City Attorney J. Rita Danish.

He noted that the plan reduced the population variance between the largest and smallest district from 9.2 percent to 7.0 percent.

“Clearly the Rakestraw plan has the advantage of creating districts with better population balance,” Sherman wrote. “To achieve this end, the author moves 10 full precincts and one partial precinct. It should be noted that, if a more equal population balance is desired, variances in the range of the proposed plan can be achieved by moving a single precinct.”

One of the most controversial features of the Rakestraw map was that it shifted Precinct G48 out of District 4, making it an awkward protrusion from District 1. Sherman wrote: “Districts which are geographically compact are preferred over irregularly shaped districts…. The placement of Precinct G48 will probably result in a less compact measurement for Councilperson Rakestraw’s plan.”

On one count, Sherman found that Rakestraw’s map improved on the map in place at the time. The current district map divided 18 neighborhoods. In contrast, the proposed map would have divided only 10 neighborhoods.

An e-mail sent by Greensboro Neighborhood Congress advisor Donna Newton to the organization’s listserve described public reaction to the plan.

“I’m sure most of you know that there has been significant backlash to the redistricting plan submitted by Mary Rakestraw and released to the public at about 7:00 p.m. on Friday, April 15 and then voted on in council on Tuesday, April 19,” Newton wrote. “Due to the short notice of the vote, we did not have time to organize any action, so I spoke at the April 19 meeting and advised council of our March 12 meeting in which Zack Matheny was our guest speaker. I explained that the consensus at that meeting was to not make any changes to district boundaries at this time.”

Newton added that she had expressed to elected representatives “that based on the many calls I’ve received from residents, this council has lost its credibility with this process.”

The e-mail surfaced in the public records request because an unidentified recipient forwarded it to Rakestraw, with the comment:

“Good gravy.”

At the next meeting, council voted to reconsider the controversial Rakestraw plan. A map submitted by Wade featuring changes that were minimal in comparison was adopted instead. That plan is currently in place for this fall’s municipal elections.