N.O. needs seven districts, group tells City Council - At-large positions would be history

Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA) - Monday, June 27, 2011
Author: Bruce Eggler Staff writer

As the City Council sought public comment in recent weeks on various plans for redrawing the boundaries of the five council districts in accord with the results of the 2010 census, an alternative proposal emerged: changing the council from five districts and two at-large members to seven districts. 

As the council last week wrapped up its public hearings on the redistricting issue, a group of mainly African-American community leaders presented a formal proposal, including a map of what the seven districts might look like. 

Under their proposal, for example, instead of including all of Algiers and a few east bank neighborhoods, District C would not even include all of Algiers. 

Any such change, of course, would require amending the City Charter, and it could not be done in time to meet the deadlines for redistricting this year. But at least a couple of council members said they were open to the idea of restructuring or expanding the council, though perhaps not eliminating at-large members, as the community group proposed. 

Council President Jackie Clarkson suggested that any such restructuring should be done to coincide with the redistricting that would take place after the 2020 census. To try to do it now, she said, would result in chaos, but Norris Henderson, one of the leaders of the restructuring movement, said, --''Wait' to us always means 'never.' " 

The community leaders pushing the plan said that creating smaller districts would "provide greater opportunities for voters to elect candidates of choice." Having smaller districts would make it easier for candidates with limited financial resources to compete effectively, they said. They also said that council districts in New Orleans have significantly larger populations than those in cities such as Atlanta, Cleveland, Newark, St. Louis and Cincinnati. 

"For challengers the new lines would offer greater chances of victory. For the people, it would bring their representation closer to home," said Vincent Sylvain of the Louisiana Unity Coalition. 

The same arguments, of course, could have been made at any time in recent decades, and with even greater cogency than now. Due to post-Katrina population losses, the size of each council district after redistricting will in fact be much smaller than 10 years ago -- down from about 97,000 people to about 69,000. Dividing the city into seven districts would bring that number down to about 49,000. 

So why the push for smaller districts now? Although the proponents did not say so explicitly, their proposal seems to have been driven by concern that the seven-member council, which a few years ago had five black members, including four of the five district members, now has just two black members, from districts D and E, although the city remains two-thirds African-American. 

Eliminating the two at-large members, both of whom are now white, and creating seven smaller districts with the boundaries they have proposed appears designed to facilitate the election of a majority-black council once again. 

The map can be seen at http://advancementproject.org/our-work/redistricting. 

One of the community leaders, Katherine Prevost, president of the Upper 9th Ward Bunny Friend Neighborhood Association, noted that when the charter was adopted in 1954, black residents had no voice in drawing it up or deciding whether it should be adopted. 

However, all but one of the five redistricting proposals being considered by the council would maintain four districts with a majority of African-American residents. Under scenario No. 2, District B would be 46.7 percent black and 47.8 percent white. The other four options provide for four districts with black residents making up between 53.2 percent and 86.3 percent of the population. All five scenarios provide for a white majority in District A, ranging from 65.4 percent to 68 percent. 

And, of course, black residents constitute large majorities of the citywide population and registered voters. If white candidates have won most recent citywide elections as well as seats in some council districts with black majorities, it is because black voters did not go to the polls in equivalent percentages or because many of those who did voted for white candidates. Even redrawing the city into the seven proposed districts could not guarantee the election of four or five black members. 

The proponents make one other intriguing argument for their plan: Restructuring the council, they say, would mean incumbent council members would no longer be term-limited because the districts from which they were elected, including the at-large members, would no longer exist. Regardless of the legal merits of that argument, which would appear to be debatable, it also is uncertain whether any of the four term-limited members in fact would want to run for another term.