Augusta Commission rejects new district map

 

 

New district lines that seemed a compromise when they won unanimous approval by an ad-hoc committee last week were rejected Tuesday when five Augusta Commission members voted against them.

With Mayor Deke Copenhaver not present to break a tie, a motion in support of the plan approved on Nov. 29 by the committee failed Tuesday 5-5.

Commissioners Jerry Brigham and Grady Smith, both of whom served on the ad hoc committee, were opposed, as were Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles and commissioners Joe Jackson and Wayne Guilfoyle.

“After the fact, I believe that this (plan) does not continue the path where we are now with the governance of this county,” Brigham said before voting. “We either need to refer it back to the ad hoc committee or we need to disapprove this plan.”

The plan modifies existing commission and school board lines to account for population shifts. It creates six majority-black districts, one more than under the existing lines, based on 2010 census data showing a county now 55.84 percent black or mixed-race including black.

Guilfoyle referred to the mid-1990s, when authors of Augusta’s consolidation bill appeared to create a government run by five white and five black commissioners, despite a county that was then majority white.

The committee’s plan is “no longer equal and fair,” Guilfoyle said.

“The hypocrisy that goes on in this commission is extremely disappointing,” said Mason, who chaired the ad-hoc committee, which met six times and conducted four public hearings.

“We had more than enough opportunity to address the issues,” Mason said, declining to reconvene the committee.

The only white commissioner to vote for the plan, Commissioner Matt Aitken, said he voted for it not to intentionally create a tie but because the committee had approved it 12-0.

“The vote that was taken sent a strong message to the community,” Aitken said.

Commissioner Bill Lockett, who served on the committee and voted in favor of the plan Tuesday, said all sides had to compromise when drawing the maps.

“We were in a majority, 7-5,” Lockett said of the committee’s seven black members. “We decided that we were going to set an example.”

Earlier Tuesday, Jackson spoke out strongly against the plan despite being term-limited from running again from District 6, which shifts from 53 percent black to 60 percent black or mixed-race. Jackson said he’d rallied fellow commissioners to join him in support of rejecting it.

Jackson said neighborhoods such as Northview, Waverly and elsewhere across the city had been sliced up in the plan to serve “a hidden agenda.”

“What gets me is the legislators decided to get heavily involved,” Jackson said. “It should have been up to the school board and the commission.”

School board member Jimmy Atkins, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said he attended some of the hearings and didn’t notice any public outcry about the preliminary drafts’ minority percentages. Atkins also questioned the delegation’s role. “I think they overstepped their bounds,” he said.

The third of five plans considered by the committee, Plan 3 was devised at the request of Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Gracewood, who sought majority-black districts that were between 60 percent and 65 percent, not in the 70 percent range, as four were in Plan 2. Plan 3R, approved by the committee Nov. 29, slightly decreased District 6’s black percentage.

Despite the setback, the commission’s vote isn’t binding on the legislative delegation, which is charged with authoring legislation in support of the plan. The redistricting plan needs approval from the General Assembly, the governor and the U.S. Department of Justice.

If a majority of the delegation supports the plan, it goes onto a consent agenda for certain approval. But a dissenting legislator can have the bill pulled from the consent agenda and require a vote by the entire House or Senate. Calls to delegation members Tuesday were not returned.

Copenhaver missed the meeting because he is on vacation, according to his executive assistant, Karyn Nixon.

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