ATLANTA — A federal court could be drawing new district maps for the Augusta Commission and the Richmond County school board after the senators representing the city stopped all redistricting action in the General Assembly on Tuesday.
Incumbents could be paired in the same district or drawn into one with voters who don’t know them or support their politics. Observers say that when courts draw district maps, they usually look only at making the numbers equal in every district without regard to neighborhoods or politics.
“That’s a big risk for a lot of people,” said Rep. Barbara Sims, R-Augusta.
Sens. Hardie Davis and Jesse Stone pulled the maps of the commission and school board districts from Senate consideration, leaving candidates to run in the existing districts drawn after the 2000 census unless a federal court challenge leads to revisions.
The senators agreed to halt legislative consideration of a pair of maps passed by the House that was on the agenda for the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee. The panel was to be the setting for amending the House version with one of the two drafts written by the senators, but they put on the brakes when members of the local House delegation rejected any amendments. The senators object to the House maps because they said too many members of the commission and school board oppose them.
Sitting side by side in Davis’ office, the senators from different parties used nearly identical phrases to explain their decision.
“I didn’t want to substitute my judgment for the whole community,” said Stone, R-Waynesboro.
Augusta Commission member Bill Lockett, who served on the 12-member ad hoc committee that unanimously approved the maps in November, said it was “extremely sad” that they have been tossed out.
“Politics entered into the decision-making process,” Lockett said. “People are paying attention to what we’re doing here, and we can’t even conduct ordinary business in a sensible, orderly manner.”
Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who also served on the committee and later reversed his position on the maps, said the decision was one “the Legislature needs to make.”
The Richmond County Board of Elections spent $4,872, including travel, for consultant Linda Meggers to help develop the five maps it considered, Elections Director Lynn Bailey said. The board also spent $3,448 for Augusta West-Huseby Reporting to record five committee meetings and four public hearings on the plans, Bailey said.
Most Richmond County school board members were unaware the senators had withdrawn the maps from consideration when they met for their monthly meeting Tuesday evening.
When informed by board attorney Pete Fletcher about the setback, most members said they were unhappy with the lack of communication by local legislators.
“We’re dealing with our schools, our students, our employees, and I’m sick of (legislators) making decisions without talking to any of us about that,” board President Alex Howard said.
Board members said they often do not get phone messages returned and are not consulted before a Senate vote.
“I think it’s wrong for them to go up there and make decisions based on not even talking to us,” board Vice President Venus Cain said. “I’d like to say I’m very disappointed in Sen. Davis.”
With just four working days left in the 2012 legislative session, there is little opportunity to act. Today is Greater Augusta Day at the Capitol, which will bring 40 area business and political leaders to Atlanta. Davis and Stone dismissed that as an opportunity to hammer out an agreement, however.
If the Legislature doesn’t pass new maps, the existing districts remain in effect for commission and school board candidates unless someone files a challenge in federal court. Then, the court would have to act on a short schedule, starting from scratch.
No matter who draws the maps, they must be submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice for clearance first to ensure minority voters won’t lose political muscle. The department has 90 days for its review. Also, absentee ballots for members of the military must be sent 45 days before the election, narrowing the window further.
One bill that is advancing in the General Assembly could shrink the timeline still more. Sims sponsored a bill that moves the election date for Augusta balloting to the July primary. It’s pending in the Senate, and she said Tuesday that she intends to keep it moving forward.
Observers say it’s common for a judge overseeing a redistricting case to postpone elections until the new maps are cleared in advance.
Davis and Stone expressed their own frustration that they were not able to find a consensus, and they refused to act without one.
“It’s important from a community standpoint that we not further divide or polarize the community,” Davis said.
Both senators denied that the decision to kill redistricting was a concession to persuade Davis to vote for a controversial charter-school amendment to the state constitution the day before. He broke with other Senate Democrats to provide Republicans with the supermajority they needed for one of their key legislative goals.
They deny, too, that the inability to draw a map is a sign the community can’t solve its own problems. Sims also rejected that notion.
“I don’t think we’re dysfunctional,” she said. “We don’t agree on everything, and sometimes we don’t agree on much, but that’s why they send us up here, to be independent.”
Staff writers Susan McCord and Tracey McManus contributed to this article.