Board delays redistricting

Published 8:49 pm Monday, September 15, 2008

JACKSON—The five commissioner districts in Northampton County will remain as is…at least for the next 15 months.

On Monday, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners decided to table their decision regarding the redistricting of the county’s commissioner districts, pending receipt of the 2010 Census, which is expected to be received by the county in January of that year.

The commissioners also agreed, during the 15-month time frame, to direct County Manager Wayne Jenkins and County Attorney Charles Vaughan to study any pending litigation of other entities that have attempted to redistrict their voting districts.

The board also agreed to have public forums around the county to solicit comments on the issue from citizens.

“Our data is based on old statistics,” said Commission Chair Robert Carter before the board’s decision. “To do anything (now) would be premature.”

The commissioners’ decision on the matter came after a board work session was held to discuss the possibility of redistricting.

Community action group, United Men for Change (UMC), first brought the issue before the commissioners in July. UMC’s Chairman, Clarence Drumgoole, served as the group’s representative and addressed the board on the disparity between the number of voters in the western end of the county (District 5) compared to the other four districts. UMC recommended that the board add two additional commissioners to their board.

Preliminary research done by County Manager Jenkins in July did show disproportionate numbers between District 5, which counts for the majority of the county’s registered voters (with 40 percent residing there), and the highest population, and the rest of the county’s districts.

According to 2000 Census data, more than 8,000 (or 38.1 percent) of the 22,086 citizens of the county live in District 5 (Occoneechee, Pleasant Hill and Gaston townships).

District 1 (the Kirby Township/ northeastern part of the county) accounts for a 16.1 percent (3,552) of the county’s population. District 2 (the Rich Square Township) accounts for 16.4 percent (3,617) of the county’s population.

District 4 (Seaboard and Wiccacanee townships) stands for 3,436 (15.6 percent) of the county’s population.

District 3 (Roanoke and Jackson townships) rounds out the localities with the lowest population of 3,058 (13.8 percent).

During the work session, Jenkins gave a more in-depth presentation on the issue, including what avenues the county could take.

Jenkins began with a little history regarding the five commissioner districts, noting they were first drawn in 1937 and have not been changed since.

Jenkins said each of the five districts represent 20 percent of the total make up of the board and the board’s vote.

Northampton County is subject to section five of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which Jenkins said protects “minority fairness and equity in voting and voting rights.”

Jenkins noted because of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the county would need pre-clearance from the United States Department of Justice in order to redraw the county’s districts.

The districts could then be altered or the number of districts changed by a local act passed by the North Carolina General Assembly or by the adoption of a resolution by the board followed by a public referendum.

Jenkins also stated commissioner representation is not based on property values, amount of taxes paid from a geographical area or district and the number of registered voters within a population or district.

He said commissioner representation is based on citizen population and fair and equal representation.

According to the information provided by Jenkins, adding two additional commissioners to the board would entail redrawing of the county’s districts as well as the reconstruction of the regulations by which the commissioners’ govern.

Jenkins then proposed four solutions:

Solution A: Add a sixth district, created west of Gaston. This would require the addition of another commissioner and entail reconstruction of the governing process.

Solution B: Take no action pending receipt by the county of the 2010 Census. Jenkins noted the information the county has to work with is currently eight years old and raises the question of accuracy.

Solution C: Redraw the existing districts to a more evenly apportion population within each district. Redrawing the districts would take effect immediately after the proper procedure is followed.

Solution D: Redraw the existing districts to more evenly apportion population within each district and change Northampton County from residency districts to electoral districts. Electoral districts would require commissioners to be voted on by those within that district versus all of the commissioners being voted on at large.

“I would certainly be hesitant to make a decision on nearly nine year old information,” said Jenkins to the commissioners. “This is a very sensitive issue.”

Jenkins continued by saying that perhaps the county had changed and maybe the districts needed to be changed, but if the commissioners were to fix the problem they should fix it the whole way.

County Attorney Vaughan asked if the commissioners wanted to wait until information that might not be available to them until 2011.

Jenkins said the 2010 Census information is currently being compiled and will be sent to the county for approval in 2009. He expects the information to be provided to the county in January of 2010.

Both Vaughan and Jenkins agreed the county needed to study pending litigation that other entities were going through.

Carter agreed if the commissioners made a decision before the 2010 Census it would be based on old information.

Carter questioned if the county is losing population.

“All indicators are pointing that the county is losing population,” Jenkins answered.

Jenkins suggested that the commissioners hold forums in order to take public comment in order to get “the pulse” of the community.

Commissioner James Hester motioned to take no action regarding the redistricting issue; Commissioner Chester Deloatch offered a second.

The measure passed without objection.