Three-year-old redistricting plan draws suspicion on Greensboro council

by Jordan Green

The Pomona neighborhood was shuffled from District 5 to District 4 during during the Greensboro City Council’s most recent redistricting process in 2008. (photo by Jordan Green)

Zack Matheny, who represents District 3 in north Greensboro, will serve as liaison for redrawing the city’s five council districts when the city receives new population numbers from the Census in the next several weeks.

So far, the process seems to be following a divisive chain of events in 2008, when the city redrew district lines after a significant round of annexation. Then, the council voted 5-4 to reject a plan created by staff and favored by District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy- Small before approving a plan submitted by Matheny that worked to the advantage of District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade. This time, Wade moved to appoint Matheny as liaison for redistricting. Bellamy-Small asked if she could work with Matheny on the plan, and was turned down.

The redistricting process of 2008 marked a first, according to city staff: Never before had an outside consultant been involved in crafting redistricting plans. This year could mark yet another first in the city’s redistricting history: Matheny said he is working out the details for a public input meeting to make the process more open and transparent.

For the past two years, a rumor has circulated through city hall and among elected officials and municipal employees involving political consultant Bill Burckley, who helped Wade win election in 2007, and who helped engineer Bill Knight’s mayoral upset two years later, in addition to assisting on the campaigns of Matheny, Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan and District 4 Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw.

The rumor had gained such strong currency that at-large Councilman Robbie Perkins joked when redistricting came up for discussion at the council’s Feb. 15 meeting: “I nominate Bill Burckley to fill that role.”

According to rumor, Burckley drew up the 2008 redistricting plan, and handed it off to Wade; Wade passed it on to Matheny; and Matheny claimed ownership of the plan and presented it to council, which approved it by a narrow majority.

That’s not actually what happened. “Bill certainly did not draw up a plan, give it to Zack, and say, ‘Go with it,’” said Steve Sherman, the city’s geographical information services manager. “I don’t see any evidence of it.”

Sherman, who will work again with Matheny on this year’s redistricting plan, pulled out the dozen plans submitted to council and reviewed e-mails from 2007 and 2008 to reconstruct a timeline of events. Sherman said he recalls working closely with Matheny on a number of redistricting plans, including Plan Q, which was ultimately adopted.

Staff began developing various redistricting plans in November 2007, Sherman said. The basic requirements of any redistricting plan is that it balance populations and conform to the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, which require Greensboro to maintain two majorityminority city council districts, Sherman said.

After that, the city staff’s next priority was to develop a plan that minimized the number of precincts transferred. Staff’s favored plan and the one eventually championed by Bellamy- Small was Plan B.

In early January, Sherman said he worked with Bellamy-Small, who wanted to move Four Seasons Town Centre into her district.

Sherman also recalls working with Burckley. “Bill, as I understand it, was under contract by Councilwoman Wade to develop plans,” Sherman said, “although I never saw a check pass hands.”

Neither Burckley nor Wade returned calls for this story.

Sherman said Burckley submitted five plans to him on Jan. 2, and a fifth plan on Jan. 9, 2008. One of Burckley’s plans was dropped because it did not provide contiguity.

The four plans developed by Burckley

on Wade’s behalf, which are still available for review on the city’s website, bear little resemblance to Plan Q, which was ultimately adopted. The four Burckley plans share two distinctions: They capture the southern portion of downtown in Wade’s district and include hardly any precincts north of West Market Street.

Matheny joined the process later, prompted by a tip that some of the staff-generated plans redrew District 3 in a way that was not to his liking.

“When I found out that New Irving Park was out of District 3, somebody said, ‘Zack, you ought to pay attention to the redistricting,’” Matheny said. “That’s the heart of my district.”

Matheny said he had some conversations with Burckley, who had not worked as a consultant for him at that time, but the plan that was eventually adopted was by and large a product of his and Sherman’s work.

“The conversation [with Burckley] was, ‘Let me tell you my thoughts on the map.’ ‘Okay, tell me your thoughts on the map,’” Matheny recalled.

“Zack’s participation, from my perspective, was a little different,” Sherman said, “because Zack’s goal was to come up with a plan that a consensus could be found on council. My impression was he met with members of the council to see if he could find a consensus.”

Plan Q, created by Matheny and adopted by council, had two outcomes that were decidedly beneficial to Wade, a conservative Republican who had previously lost her at-large seat on the Guilford County Commission. It offloaded four Democratic-leaning precincts from District 5 into District 4, including precinct G50, with a Democratic registration of 62.7 percent. G50 also happens to be the home of Sandy Carmany, a former councilwoman of 16 years whom Wade defeated in 2007. Overall, the percentage of registered Republicans has increased by 2 percentage points in District 5 since Wade ousted Carmany. The plan created what Sherman calls a “fish-hook district” that curls around the western and southern fringe of the city, and is the only district among the five that does not reach into the heart of the city.

Regardless of who was responsible for the 2008 redistricting plan, Perkins said he objects to the fact that one district representative is taking lead responsibility for redistricting the city.

“It discredits the process, and it makes it look like something’s going on,” he said. “How can you say one person is going to create the plan, and we’ll all vote on it? Come on!

“I also want to know: How did it get on the agenda. This isn’t the way [City Manager] Rashad [Young] works. Did the mayor put it on the agenda? Clearly, there’s some sort of desire on the part of the majority to control the process and shut out the rest of us.”