Gretna violating voting laws, suit says; Annexation dilutes districting, it says

By C.J. Lin
July 23, 2009

A group that successfully sued the city of Gretna to force the creation of a majority-black council district 25 years ago is suing the city again, claiming that the Timberlane Estates annexation dilutes minority voting strength.

Filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in New Orleans, the lawsuit seeks to nullify the December 2008 annexation because the plaintiffs believe it violates Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires Gretna to maintain a majority-minority district.

The plaintiffs also say the city violated Section 2 of the law, which prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color or language. They want the at-large council seat eliminated and a fifth council district created and designated as the city's second black majority district seat.

"It's just not right what the city is doing," said Leo Jones Jr., one of the plaintiffs and the city's first elected black alderman. "The black community needs proportionate representation. Right now, we can create a second black majority district. With Timberlane, that becomes impossible."

With the annexation of Timberlane, the number of white voters increased nearly 15 percent, while the number of black voters rose nearly 2 percent.

But because the city proposed that the new area would be absorbed into Districts 3 and 4, the lawsuit says the black majority would be reduced in District 3. Currently, the 1st District is established as the city's black majority district.

The city's redistricting application, which is pending federal approval, splits Timberlane, giving the portion north of Lapalco Boulevard to District 4, and the southern half to District 3. The 4th District also would lose part of the Bellevue subdivision to the 3rd District.

Timberlane is now represented by Councilman-at-large Wayne Rau.

"The city of Gretna has used, and continues to use, voting procedures such as majority vote and non-partisan elections to create, enhance and promote the opportunity for and existence of discrimination against minorities," the lawsuit says. "The purpose and/or foreseeable and intended results of maintaining an at-large district for the Gretna city council . . . is to deny or abridge the rights of African Americans to vote based on race or color."

Rau said the basis for the lawsuit, which uses demographics from the 2000 census, might not apply post-Katrina.

"I don't think that the actual distribution of minorities throughout the city can be determined until the 2010 census because until then, we don't know what we've got," he said. "So I think that before I even get concerned about the situation, I'd have to know what the true distribution of Hispanics, Vietnamese and blacks really is."

City Attorney Mark Morgan said the city expects a decision from the U.S. Justice Department in the next week on the redistricting related to the Timberlane annexation. But the lawsuit could potentially delay elections, tentatively set for October, again, because the plaintiffs want an injunction preventing an election or appointment of council members until the suit is settled.

April's district elections were postponed after the Justice Department said it could not approve the city's original redistricting plan including Timberlane because of insufficient information and inconsistencies in the data submitted.

"I question the timing of the suit and the allegations in the suit," Morgan said. "They allege racial discrimination which there is absolutely no credible indication of on the part of the city."

The plaintiffs consist of Gretna Citizens for Better Government, a group focused on black civil rights, as well as Jones, Charles Mar and Rudy Smith. Jones was alderman for a decade before losing a 1997 election to Mar. Mar served one term as 1st District councilman before being defeated by Jonathan Bolar. Smith is contemplating a run against Bolar in the next election.

The defendants are council members Raylyn Beevers, Vincent Cox, Belinda Constant, Bolar and Rau, Mayor Ronnie Harris and Secretary of State Jay Dardenne.

The group also wants several ordinances pertaining to Timberlane, including the annexation and installation of limited-access gates, to be nulled because the federal officials have not made their ruling.

"We're trying to force the city of Gretna to tear down those gates and stop writing the tickets as if it were a part of the city, because it's not," Jones said. "Everything is illegal."