Slidell council shuffles district borders - 7 areas adjusted based on the census

Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA) - Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Author: Ramon Antonio Vargas St. Tammany bureau

The Slidell City Council voted on Tuesday to redraw its district boundaries so they would reflect the municipality's 2010 U.S. census population, as required by law. 

According to census counts, to satisfy requirements that Slidell's seven districts be as similar in size as possible, they ideally would encompass 3,867 people each. Several districts do not comply with acceptable deviations from that figure. The allowable deviations usually are plus or minus 5 percent, with greater variance permitted to establish a federally mandated district that gives a minority candidate reasonable chances to win an election. 

Council members introduced legislation meant to comply with the redistricting requirement at their regular meeting Sept. 13, and they approved it 8-0 after a public hearing Tuesday. District E representative Sam Caruso was absent. 

The 1965 Voting Rights Act requires most Southern states to present representation changes to the U.S. Justice Department for evaluation to guarantee that they don't weaken minority voting strength. If they pass muster there, the new Slidell City Council boundaries will go into effect for the 2014 election season. 

"We took all the districts and made them compact, instead of being stretched out," said Council President Landon Cusimano, whose seat is one of two at-large ones. "To me, that's the best, because it gives definition to all the districts." 

The "minority-majority" District A, represented by the only African-American on the panel, Councilman Lionel Hicks, and District E were said to be the two that varied most from the acceptable deviation. District A -- which is 51 percent black, 40.4 percent white and 8.6 percent other -- had only 2,391 people within its boundaries and was underpopulated. District E, with its 5,466 residents, was overpopulated. 

Also too large, at 4,737 residents, was Councilman Sam Abney's District B, officials say. Councilman Joe Fraught's District D, with 3,055 people, and Councilman Bill Borchert's District G, with 3,632 people, were too small. 

Councilman Buddy Lloyd's District C, with 4,067 residents, and Councilman Jay Newcomb's District F, with 3,720 people, were both OK, but they were affected as boundaries in adjacent areas were shifted to try to reach acceptable population counts, said demographer Mike Hefner, whose firm was hired by the city as a consultant for the process. 

The white population in Districts B through G ranged from 58 percent to 89.6 percent, while the African-American population in those places ranged from 6.7 percent to 31.7 percent. 

To balance out the districts' sizes and makeup, the City Council has opted to extend District A's boundaries into Districts B and C, between Pontchartrain Drive and the railroad tracks to the Dellwood area. Hefner has explained that the reason for doing that is to pick up the large minority population of the Westchester Apartments. 

District D's boundaries have been stretched to Yester Oaks as well as the Palm Lake subdivision and neighboring areas, now in District C. To compensate for the loss in population, District C's boundaries will be moved east into Lakewood, north into Bon Village and western Heritage Estates, west of U.S. 11 and north of Gause Boulevard. 

District G is taking the new Tanglewood Crossing development as well as a portion of the nearby Tanglewood area from District F, and District F is getting the north section of Heritage Estates from District E, Hefner has said. 

The plan, once enacted, will boost District A's population to 3,388, or 12.4 percent away from the ideal size. That is expected to meet federal guidelines, because 45.5 percent of those people will be African-American, 46.2 percent will be white and 8.3 percent will qualify as other, preserving a district where a minority candidate could reasonably emerge victorious in a political race. 

District B's population will be 3,874, District C's will be 4,050, District D's will be 3,986, District E's will be 4,008, District F's will be 3,933 and District G's will be 3,829, all of which fall within the acceptable deviation. The white population in those districts will range from 74.7 percent to 90.4 percent, and the African-American population will range from 5.8 percent to 20.4 percent. 

Several council members admitted they did not understand or agree with the logic behind all aspects of the plan, but they chose against modifying it after public hearings drew little participation on the night it was introduced as well as on Sept. 27 and Tuesday. 

Richard Reardon, an appraiser for the St. Tammany Parish assessor's office who ran for the council seat Abney won in 2010, was the one city resident who spoke during all three discussions. He expressed concern that District A's new boundaries will encompass the six registered voters living on Berkley Street, who are all white, which diluted the minority voting strength the council sought there. 

"I feel a more practical solution is in order and should be explored," explained Reardon, who lives on Berkley Street. 

But it was not just registered voters that dictated the redistricting plan's lines, council members explained -- it was also total population figures.