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VOL. 127 | NO. 51 | Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Commission’s Redistrict Debate Moves to Chancery

By Bill Dries

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It is now up to a court to decide on a new set of district lines for the Shelby County Commission.

And Chancellor Arnold Goldin is not being asked to approve a simple tweaking of district boundaries that will essentially keep the commission as it is.

The plan attorney Ronald Krelstein is reporting to Goldin that received seven votes on the 13-member commission this week would change the commission from a set of five districts – four of them multi-member districts – to a set of 13 single-member districts. And seven of those districts would have majority African-American populations.

Goldin is likely to set a hearing date once he looks over Krelstein’s report.

The most recent vote count did not meet the nine-vote, two-thirds majority the county charter says is required to approve a plan on third and final reading. But Krelstein says he will report and Goldin is certain to note that state law only requires a simple majority of seven votes for final passage.

And Krelstein told commissioners near the end of a long day Monday, March 12, that state law trumps the charter.

Commissioner Mike Ritz pushed for a new set of single-member district lines that included an eighth majority-black district, saying it more closely reflected a move to have the 13 districts either majority within the city of Memphis or majority county outside the city of Memphis.

Krelstein represents county government as a whole in the redistricting lawsuit filed by Ritz and fellow commissioners Walter Bailey and Terry Roland. Asked by commissioner Steve Mulroy if he would be comfortable defending Ritz’s plan in Shelby County Chancery Court, Krelstein answered no.

“State law controls my opinion,” Krelstein said. “That’s what I’ll advocate.”

Ritz argued it isn’t Krelstein’s role to point to the conflict with state law. Krelstein said Goldin is likely to at least explore the issue anyway, whether he brings it up or not.

One of the other changes Ritz favored moved Republican commissioner Heidi Shafer from District 9 – as it became the eighth majority black population district – into District 5. Shafer’s home is just on the District 5 side of one of the borders with District 9.

Commissioner Steve Mulroy pointed to an 11 percent deviation in the population each district would have under the Ritz plan. Attorneys have repeatedly advised the commission that a 10 percent deviation either way is the limit established by past court cases and court rulings.

But Ritz contends the deviation goes over 10 percent because the population count in one district includes prisoners at the Shelby County Corrections Center.

Leaders from the Memphis branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as well as Shelby County Democratic Party chairman Van Turner backed the other plan that later got seven votes, saying seven majority-black districts was “fair.”

“I wanted to avoid this issue,” Turner said. “Race is not the ultimate issue. We have to put race in perspective.”

Commission chairman Sidney Chism, a former local Democratic Party chairman, said he was “appalled” by the statements. Chism looked at the division as political and not necessarily racial.

“The numbers dictate that we should have eight Democratic districts,” he said. “Fairness is you got the numbers, you do what’s necessary.”

Commissioner James Harvey called the plan with eight majority-black districts “acceptable gerrymandering.”

“We have decided if you are in the inner city and you do not want to live in the inner city you have the option to move out of the inner city,” Harvey said. “That says to me very well and very clearly that obviously you don’t want proper representation in that city portion of our demographics.”

Commissioner Chris Thomas countered that Shelby County’s 52 percent African-American population equates to seven majority-black population districts.

“Can we not get past this?” he said. “I’m so sick and tired of the continual racist comments.”

“I do not have the power to be racist,” Commissioner Henri Brooks responded. “I can’t be racist. I may be prejudiced. I’m looking at the numbers. … For someone to sit down there and make hypocritical statements about someone who raises the issue – because it is a real issue – is just media-grabbing rhetoric.”

She then added, “The Civil War is over. Y’all lost.”

The vote ended the third attempt by the commission to approve a redistricting plan required by the U.S. Census each decade. The plan was supposed to be approved by the end of 2011.

PROPERTY SALES 0 133 1,342
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