VOL. 115 | NO. 218 | Thursday, December 20, 2001
District 5 comes under boards scrutiny for change
District 5 at heart of redistricting plan
By MARY DANDO
The Daily News
If commissioners cannot come to an agreement regarding District 5 at a special meeting of Shelby County Commission today, the final decision with regard to the countys redistricting plan will be made in court.
Because of changes in the demographics of Shelby County following the 2000 Census, state law and the county charter mandates approval of a redistricting plan by Jan. 1 for the 2002 election.
District 5, the smallest of the five districts in Shelby County, might have become the straw that breaks the camels back for the commission.
The district now includes areas of East Memphis and Hickory Hill. Its northern boundary is Walnut Grove Road, its southern boundary is Shelby Drive.
District 5 elects only one commissioner.
In this case, incumbent Republican Buck Wellford is not seeking re-election.
The other four districts have three commissioners each.
According to the latest Census, Shelby County is now fairly evenly divided racially with African Americans having a slight edge.
Out of a total county population of 897,472, 48.1 percent is "total white alone or in combination" and 49 percent is "total black alone or in combination."
Unlike the other districts, District 5 is racially mixed.
Commissioners regard District 5 as a "toss-up district" for Democratic and Republican candidates.
Since 1994, Republicans have been in the majority on the commission, mostly as a result of the districting plan following the 1990 Census.
How the lines are drawn in District 5 for the 2002 election will determine which party has a majority on the commission, and because of that, commissioners cannot agree on a redistricting plan.
Republican Marilyn Loeffel wants the district to remain the same.
She is proposing commissioners approve Plan C, which has been referred to as the "status quo" plan, a term she is not comfortable with.
"It is unfortunate that the term given to my plan is status quo because it doesnt mean status quo for all of the districts, just District 5," she said.
As well as the new sections of Hickory Hill that have come into the district, District 5 also include well established East Memphis areas, she said.
Loeffel wants the district unchanged because it is already a tossup district.
"It is not a Republican district. To keep that seat we will have to work very hard," she said.
"Because of the Census figures, we are forced to redistrict because of the population changes. Districts 1 and 2 have too little population, districts 3 and 4 have too much, but District 5 is just fine as it is."
Legally, commissioners are not supposed to draw district boundaries based on voter registration, she said.
"Those figures are available and you can factor them in, but it is illegal to redistrict just on those voter registration figures, because they are basically racial."
The county commission normally has 13 members. Currently, seven are Republican, and with the death of James Ford in late November, and with Michael Hooks injured in a car crash Saturday, there will be only four Democrats voting today, all of them African American.
The county charter requires a two-thirds majority for approval meaning nine votes are needed to carry the proposal.
Loeffel sees no common ground and predicts as a result of todays vote, the issue will end up in court.
To avoid this, Wellford along with Democrat Walter Bailey devised a compromise plan, Plan B on todays agenda, which was approved in committee, but failed to win approval at Mondays meeting.
"It is basically the current District 5 with the addition of a few extra precincts that add a little more black population," Wellford said.
He said the political reality is nine votes are needed, so whatever plan is adopted its going to have to give some concessions to Republicans and Democrats.
He said the figures given for the status quo plan are two years out-of-date. A drive around the area demonstrates even greater numbers of African-American residents.
"It clearly is a toss-up district right now. Al Gore won the district. Although you are not allowed to draw up these lines on racial lines you are allowed do it on party grounds," he said.
Another reality is black commissioners will not tolerate a plan that keeps them below 30 percent in the registered voters, and the status quo plan does, Wellford said.
"I think what were going to do is split the difference between Walter and my compromise plan and the status quo plan," he said.
"Everybody will save face, well get the plan adopted and the process will work."
Democrat Julian Bolton said the goal is the will of the people can effectively occur in the selection of representation.
"At the end of redistricting if we can agree as commissioners on a point, the court will likely not challenge it because its a political decision. Its not for the court to make a political decision," he said.
If they fail to agree, however, then the court will take control of redistricting, and in this case will mandate single member districts, Bolton said.
"That is what the court would conclude is the fairest way to achieve balance in representation," he said.
Bolton said he and the other Democrats wanted to make District 5 a toss-up district, so a candidate from either party would have a chance to win.
Like Wellford, Bolton thinks the commission is going to come to a decision on a plan.
"If we dont, then the county is going to end up spending several hundred thousand dollars in a redistricting suit, and we have to pay all the bills on this because its our fault," he said.