City Commission delays vote on redistricting

Published: Friday, November 16, 2012 at 5:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 16, 2012 at 5:25 p.m.

The Gainesville City Commission has delayed a decision on redistricting in order to give representatives of east Gainesville political and community groups more time to flesh out concerns and potentially submit an alternative plan of their own.

Thursday evening, commissioners pushed off the first of two required votes on new boundaries for the commission’s four single-member districts until Dec. 6.

Representatives of the local NAACP, the African American Accountability Alliance and other east Gainesville organizations pressed for the delay in meetings with individual commissioners and during Thursday evening’s commission meeting.

At the commission meeting, they expressed concerns that the plan before commissioners, which a consultant and advisory committee on redistricting have both endorsed, could jeopardize the minority access status of City Commission District 1, which includes most of east Gainesville. Their worries focused on Census data showing that African-Americans — at 47.9 percent — no longer made up a majority of the district’s population.

The city’s contracted redistricting consultant, University of Florida political science professor Kenneth Wald, has consistently pointed to election results, not Census population data, to respond to those concerns.

Wald has said the voting precincts he has recommended to include in District 1 would have the least significant change in district boundaries and, based on this year’s primary and general election results, the least dilution of the black vote.

Raising concerns about that plan Thursday, former City and County Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut pointed to the fact that Wald’s plan placed voting Precinct 59, with its large university student population, in District 1 on the premise that students are not active in city elections and would therefore not dilute the minority vote.

Chestnut said there were no assurances the students would not become active in future city elections.

“If someone organized them, they could be a powerful voting bloc,” she said.

Since Gainesville in 1988 went to a hybrid system that included single-member districts, District 1 has elected five consecutive black commissioners — starting with Rodney Long and continuing through Yvonne Hinson-Rawls.

While commissioners unanimously decided to delay the issue until Dec. 6, the city’s attorneys cautioned against stretching the process out much longer. Under the city charter, redistricting must be completed by the second year after the Census — or the end of next month, City Attorney Nicolle Shalley said.

But Shalley said if the process stretches into January, it would be a technical charter violation with few consequences. If the city was sued to compel commissioners to follow the charter, they would already be in the process of doing so — provided the redistricting process did not drag out long into 2013, Shalley said

Retired City Attorney Marion Radson, who still represents the city on limited projects, said more serious issues, such as potentially falling out of compliance of the federal Voting Rights Act and the equal protection clause of the Constitution, would arise if the city goes months into the year or through the March election cycle without redistricting.

Radson said that was because the wide population disparities in some of the districts as currently drawn would not keep with the principle of one person, one vote.

“They are too unequal to be in compliance with the equal protection clause,” Radson said.

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