Citizen mobilization continues as council reconsiders redistricting plan

Citizens react to a controversial redistricting plan passed by the Greensboro City Council on Tuesday.

UPDATE 2: District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny, who was in Atlanta on business at the time of the vote, said, contrary to an assertion earlier today by Nancy Vaughan, that he had nothing to do with the Rakestraw redistricting plan. Matheny added that following the two public input meetings that he held on redistricting he told any of his fellow council members that he could reach that the consensus of the citizens was that "nothing really needs to be done," that is no precincts should be moved.

This story will be revised accordingly.

UPDATE: Mayor Bill Knight said he supports Vaughan's initiative to reconsider the redistricting plan. He said the mayor doesn't typically make or second motions, but he would be willing to second a motion to reconsider.

"There’s been a lot of concern and comment," he said, "and I think we as a council need to work together for the community for the good of the community and this would be appropriate.

"I think we’re in agreement as a council," he said. "I agree that it will be brought back to the council perhaps as early as Tuesday, [when] we have a work session. Perhaps we might be able to have some discussion. That’s not a voting meeting."

The earliest council would be likely to vote on the matter would be May 3, he indicated. Knight said at this time he does not have a sense of whether he will end up voting for a plan similar to the one submitted by Rakestraw or another plan.

ORIGINAL POST: Sharon Hightower with the Guilford County Unity Effort called it before the votes were even counted on the Greensboro City Council’s redistricting plan.

“I’ll tell what this is about: This is a bait-and-switch tactic,” she said, addressing the council on Tuesday. “Put Zack up front. Let him do the transparency speech. And then you slide Ms. Rakestraw’s plan in. Which was designed by her campaign manager, Bill Burckley. Because we know you got the software. So it’s a bait-and-switch plan. It’s basically gerrymandering.”

District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny was appointed by his fellow council members as liaison for redistricting. But Matheny wasn’t present at the meeting on Tuesday. District 4 Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw submitted a redistricting plan that was publicly released last Friday and approved on Tuesday.

Under intense public pressure from constituents across the city, Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan announced this afternoon that she plans to make a motion at the next council meeting to reconsider the redistricting plan. At-large Councilman Danny Thompson, who was on vacation with his family at the time of the vote, said he plans to meet with Vaughan to discuss redistricting. He said he didn’t think he would be allowed to second Vaughan’s motion to reconsider under the rules of the city ordinance, and declined to comment on the merits of the Rakestraw plan.

“I’m kind of landlocked,” Rakestraw said after Tuesday’s meeting as an explanation for the reason for the plan. “It wasn’t to go out and be disruptive and mean. As to the public benefit of the plan, she said, “I think that if the voters look at it, it’ll be a much better plan than they realize.”

Steve Sherman, the city’s geographical information systems, director told YES! Weekly that Rakestraw brought the redistricting plan to staff. On other occasions over the past decade, council members have worked directly with staff to draw up maps or staff members create plans for council consideration on their own.

Burckley, a political consultant who contracted his services to the election campaigns of Rakestraw, Matheny, Mayor Bill Knight, Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan and District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade in 2009, left a cryptic cell phone message to YES! Weekly: “It is what it is.”

Vaughan told YES! Weekly earlier today: “My assumption, and I believe it’s true, is that this plan was started by Zack based on the input that he got. When he was unable to finish, Mary finalized it.”

Matheny said he has had an opportunity to speak with Vaughan today and wanted to set the record straight.

"I didn't have anything to do with the Rakestraw plan," he said.

The citizen input received by Matheny at a March 12 Greensboro Neighborhood Congress meeting was directly in contradiction to the plan the council ended up approving. As reported on this blog: A show of hands by the representatives of the neighborhood congress and other citizens indicated that most favor making no changes to the map, and a number of people questioned the cost to the taxpayers of undertaking redistricting.

Matheny seemed to concur with the citizens. Asked about the possibility of moving one precinct from District 5 to District 4, he cautioned that any changes could set off a domino effect, requiring a complicated shuffle of precincts among the five districts.

Matheny said today that he has a similar recollection of the meeting, and said he conveyed to any of his fellow council members that he could reach afterward that citizens told him that "nothing really needs to be done."

Vaughan said earlier today before speaking to Matheny that her fellow council member had not conveyed to her that the citizens wanted the map to be left alone.

“Not to me,” she said.

Meanwhile, opponents met yesterday evening at the Firm at Fisher Park law building for a conference call with Allison Riggs, a voting rights lawyer with the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice to devise a legal strategy for blocking the redistricting plan through the US Justice Department. Guilford County is subject to Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which means any redistricting plan must receive pre-clearance from the Justice Department. A guidance letter issued by the department in February indicates that the covered jurisdiction must demonstrate that the proposed plan does not have discriminatory effect. Citing Beer v. United States, the guidance letter states, “A plan has a discriminatory effect under the statute if, when compared to the benchmark plan, the submitting jurisdiction cannot establish that it does not result in a ‘retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise.’”

With the assistance of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, opponents plan to submit a comment letter to the Department of Justice asking the federal agency to reject the redistricting plan.

“From our initial review of the data, it seems that the changes are retrogressive,” Riggs said this morning.

Hightower applauded Vaughan’s decision today, but said the nascent coalition intends to continue researching legal strategies and analyzing precinct-level voter performance.

“We’re still going to keep on,” she said. “We thank her for the reconsideration opportunity, but if the plan goes through we will still oppose it. Now that Mary’s saying it showed up on her doorstep and for people to support something that showed up on her doorstep, that weakens the council’s position. To make decisions based on something that came out of thin air, I don’t think you would do that in your personal life and I don’t think it’s right for the city.”

Hightower and James Burroughs III, president and executive director of Democracy at Home, said they see no reason for redistricting considering that the variance between highest population and lowest population precinct is within the 10 percent threshold, but if redistricting does occur citizens need to be involved in the process.

Hightower recommended a plan submitted by her district representative, Dianne Bellamy-Small.

“The plan that Dianne proposed moves one precinct and lowers the variance to 5.3 percent,” she said. In comparison, the plan adopted by council moves 11 precincts and reduces the variance to only 7.0 percent.

“If we had to, let’s create a simple plan to move relatively few people and cause less confusion than what we’ve seen of late,” Hightower said. “If you don’t like Dianne’s plan, we have a city expert in Steve Sherman who could certainly give guidance to the best redistricting plan. Why not use the expert that we pay taxpayer money for us to have a qualified, informed city staff, and why not use the expertise as guidance as to what we need to do.”

Burroughs said the council's first order of business is to find another council member to second Vaughan's motion to reconsider the redistricting plan, so that another vote can be taken.

Riggs, the voting rights attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice questioned whether the Rakestraw plan would survive scrutiny by the US Justice Department.

“It looks like what they did is lower the black voting-age population [in District 1],” she said. “That alone can be retrogressive. If you add on top of that lowering the turnout by moving out high performing black precincts, that only increases concerns. It looks like what they did with Precinct 48 is they moved a white, high-performing precinct into District 1. We’ll point out that if the performance level stays the same, its because they switched out a higher performing black precinct for a higher performing white precinct. If that’s what’s happened, you’re talking about lowering the total black voting strength.”

Outrage over the Rakestraw plan has united constituents in predominantly white Lindley Park and majority black east Greensboro, energized organizing efforts and strengthened relationships in the nascent coalition, prompting murmured pledges to register voters and recruit candidates to challenge supporters of the plan.

Riggs said the redistricting saga adds to a perception that Greensboro’s political leadership is hostile towards the interests of minorities. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice is also representing opponents of reopening the White Street Landfill pro bono and has filed a Title VI discrimination complaint on behalf of the Latin Kings against the Greensboro Police Department.

“It’s Greensboro government not only being uncaring about certain populations, but antagonistic towards certain populations,” she said. “You’ve seen it with the landfill and with police misconduct.”


jw said...

“My assumption, and I believe it’s true, is that this plan was started by Zack based on the input that he got. When he was unable to finish, Mary finalized it.” -- Nancy Vaughan

But Mary said it just appeared on her doorstep. Would a Councilmember just leave something on someone's doorstep? Wouldn't Zack have communicated that to Mary, maybe left a phone message saying, "Mary, I left the redistricting plan on your porch in a manilla envelope." This doesn't make sense.

Jordan Green said...

No, it doesn't make sense. I'd like to hear Zack's side of the story, and have left a couple cell phone messages for him.