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Redistricting carves up territory, but to whose benefit?

by Jordan Green

A redistricting plan approved by Greensboro City Council last week raised protests by the body’s two black district representatives. Mayor Yvonne Johnson, who supported it after an alternate plan failed, indicated she might ask that the plan be reconsidered.

Plan Q, as it is called, was drawn up by District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny, and submitted to council on the day of the vote. Eleven other plans had been available for review since mid-January. Matheny’s plan received backing from colleagues in two western districts along with two at-large members of the body.

Plan Q swipes one downtown precinct each from majority-black Districts 1 and 2 to the gain of Matheny’s affluent, majority-white District 3; carves off the newly-annexed Cardinal area from District 4 Councilman Mike Barber’s domain and divides it between Districts 3 and 5; and maroons former Councilwoman Sandy Carmany from District 5, which she represented before political opponent Trudy Wade took over the seat in December.

“I really voted on B; that’s the one I supported to begin with,” Johnson said in reference to an alternate plan proposed by District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small. “I thought if I have to come back to this, I have to be in a position to do so. I’m reconsidering, that’s true.”

The mayor said she’s concerned Plan Q would be overly disruptive to relationships built between council members and their constituents. She expressed particular qualms with Fisher Park, one of the city’s most established and storied neighborhoods, being taken out of District 2, adding that she also holds reservations about the Greensboro Historical Museum and the Greensboro Children’s Museum being removed from District 2 and Triad Stage being removed from District 1, explaining, “You don’t take a district that has very few assets and begin to chip away at those assets.”

Plan Q also executes a major swap between Districts 4 and 5, moving a handful of precincts sandwiched between Friendly Avenue and Interstate 40 from District 5 to District 4. In exchange, a swath of precincts west of New Garden Road and beyond Piedmont Triad International Airport that include part of the newly annexed Cardinal, go to District 5. The plan effectively gives Barber a compact territory comprised of older, more stable neighborhoods. District 5, in turn – which has consistently rated the lowest voter participation over the past decade – is stretched from the Grandover area to the airport in a shape resembling a wishbone. Residents of neighborhoods in the newly drawn District 5 have tended to be more transient and less politically engaged than their counterparts in other sections of the city.

The potential for a backlash to annexation played a role in the design of his map, said Matheny, who took office after the vote last November.

“I don’t think it’s fair for the entire Cardinal to be in Mike Barber’s district, a member of the previous council that voted on annexation,” he said. “It’s a sensitive subject. If we create something that’s fair for the new section so they feel good about their representation, that’s what we should do. I’m looking out for the Cardinal.”

Barber said in his case potential backlash didn’t factor into his vote for the redistricting plan.

“I don’t anticipate significant resistance and frustration,” he said. “Certainly there’s going to be reaction when they get their first tax bill, but a lot of them probably wonder why it’s taken us thirty years to annex them.”

He added, “People know me well enough to know that I don’t make decisions looking at the next election. If I did I might have won a lot more. The map looks logical to me. It looks appropriate for future annexation.”

A facet of the adopted plan that has drawn more pointed controversy is its ejection of former Councilwoman Carmany from District 5.

“Precinct 50 was not touched in any of the other plans that had been available for public review and comment,” Carmany wrote on her blog, Sandy’s Place, following the vote. “I find it odd that at the 11th hour, here comes Plan Q that not only ousted my precinct from the district, but also other precincts that supported me instead of my opponent in the November 2007 election. How convenient for the current incumbent!”

Matheny disavowed the existence of any behind-the-scenes horse-trading by the five members who backed Plan Q.

“When I drew up that plan, I had no idea where Sandy Carmany lived,” he said. “That accusation that it was some underhanded thing is preposterous. I have no idea where she lives…. Trudy Wade was nowhere in the room. Trudy Wade had no idea.”

Matheny, whose comments were echoed by Barber, said there was no intent in the adopted plan to redraw district lines to the advantage of incumbents in the western districts. In comments last week he acknowledged the Fisher Park neighborhood as a coveted location, and indicated he would consider returning it to District 2 in the interest of maintaining collegial relations on council.

The District 3 councilman said he was unaware that his plan swipes Precinct 44 – which lies between Friendly Avenue, UNCG, Lee Street and Murrow Boulevard – from District 1. Johnson and Bellamy-Small indicated in interviews last week that the move also escaped their notice.

Matheny noted that adopting Plan Q headed off two precinct moves that were potentially more disruptive than those in his own map. Three of the maps drawn up by Wade would have grabbed Glenwood from District 1. Neighborhood leaders have expressed a preference for remaining in Bellamy-Small’s district. And Bellamy-Small’s Plan B would have taken the Four Seasons Town Center and Koury Convention Center out of Wade’s control. Plan Q maintains the status quo in the territorial battle between the two district representatives.

Any plan ultimately adopted by the city council must be approved by the US Justice Department before it goes into effect. Greensboro, like most of the South, is subject to Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires federal “preclearance” of plans to redraw political districts.

Both Plan Q and rival Plan B meet a critical legal requirement in maintaining the majority-minority status of Districts 1 and 2, each of whose non-white populations stand at about 78 percent. The changes in minority population as proposed in both plans are so subtle that they amount to a wash.

There are marked differences in the extent to which the two plans meet other legal requirements.

• Both fall within the 10 percent cap on population variance between the largest and smallest districts, but Plan Q carries a 6.5 percent variance while Plan B’s variance is 3.7 percent.

• The city is required to minimize the number of people reassigned to a different district. Plan Q moves 26 precincts, while Plan B moves only three.

• Federal guidelines require that new district lines avoid splitting up neighborhoods to the extent possible. Plan Q divides 11 neighborhoods while Plan B bisects 5.

• Districts are also supposed to be geographically compact. A look at the two maps reveals that both largely accomplish this injunction, with the notable exception of District 5’s wishbone formation in Plan Q.

Asked to publicly comment before the vote was taken on Feb. 19, Assistant City Attorney Jerry Kontos said, “Legally speaking, the Department of Justice looks at this and they take into account the totality of circumstances. I’m not saying that Plan Q will not be approved, but I’m saying that Plan B has a better chance of being approved.”

Both Matheny and Barber cautioned Kontos against speaking on behalf of the Justice Department.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Matheny said. “I would be careful.”

An attorney himself, Barber later said of Kontos: “His answer should have been, “These qualify under the Justice Department requirements.’ He doesn’t have the legal expertise to render an opinion on behalf of the Justice Department.”

Bellamy-Small’s strongest reason for opposing to Plan Q is that it prevents her district from absorbing the mall and convention center, which together comprise a landmark on High Point Road that she called an “economic generator.”

“If the Justice Department called me, I was going to tell them there’s political power and there’s economic power,” she said. “District One is being denied economic power. What is the most anemic district when it comes to economic development? District One. Why? Ask yourself why?”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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