Ascension remap tricky

Advocate, The (Baton Rouge, LA) - Sunday, May 29, 2011
DONALDSONVILLE - Ascension Parish Council reapportionment plans gained backing in some respects during the past several days, but the proposals are still undergoing scrutiny from residents and councilmen. 

Donaldsonville city officials did not oppose the idea of reducing the west bank's representation on the 11-member Parish Council from three to two seats in a meeting last week. 

But west bank Councilman Oliver Joseph said in a recent interview that he is working on an alternative plan to better maintain existing minority population percentages in District 1, a minority-majority district wholly on the west bank. 

"I'm definitely working on one right now," he said last week. 

Also, some east bank councilmen who would see some of the most significant changes under the proposed maps said they are discussing additions and subtractions of territory. 

The public may get a better sense of some of the proposed changes at 6 p.m. Tuesday during the next public input meeting at the Parish Courthouse Annex, 828 S. Irma Blvd., Gonzales. 

John Diez, the council's redistricting consultant, suggested late last week that the council consider adopting a plan to send to the U.S. Department of Justice by the week of June 6. 

The council is developing the plans to align the 11 council districts with 2010 U.S. census data but must ensure the districts comply with federal one- man, one-vote protections and ensure that minority representation is not diluted. 

The parish grew by nearly 40 percent between 2000 and 2010, 2010 census data show, among the fastest rates in Louisiana during that time period. 

The council is headed for elections this fall and must get U.S. Justice Department pre-clearance for its plan and give it final approval by Aug. 29. Qualifying for the Oct. 22 council primaries starts the next week. 

Unlike District 1, Districts 2 and 3 straddle the Mississippi River, which divides the parish. 

All the new reapportionment plans would cede all of District 3's share of the west bank - a large but lightly populated area - to District 1. 

Councilman Adrian Thompson, who represents District 3, said in an interview he is not opposed to the change. 

The reduction in west bank representation on the council would be part of an established trend as the west bank continues fall behind the east bank in population. 

"We understand that it is inevitable it will happen," Donaldsonville Mayor Leroy Sullivan told the council during a special meeting at the Parish Courthouse on Thursday night. 

The federal one-man, one-vote rule ensures voters in one council district are not over- or under-represented in comparison to other districts. 

Diez has said the new council districts must stay within 5 percent of a new ideal district size of 9,747 people to meet the one-man, one-vote requirements. That is about a 3,000- person increase over the ideal called for following the 2000 U.S. census. 

While the west bank council districts grew in population during the past 10 years, they did not grow as rapidly as the fastest-growing parts of the parish, according to a council presentation. 

Sixty percent of parish growth between 2000 and 2010 occurred in four council districts on the north end of the east bank. 

That means other districts, including those with at least a share of the west bank, have to shift to gain the necessary population, Diez has said. 

Under the proposals, Joseph's District 1 draws from Districts 2 and 3, pushing those districts farther east and north to gain population. 

Under federal voting rights laws, the share of minority population in the two minority-majority districts - Districts 1 and 3 - cannot be diluted unless it is unavoidable, Diez has said. 

Diez told the council Thursday it is going to be tough to get the expected benchmarks on minority population percentages. 

Under plans showed Thursday, District 1 would fall from 76 percent to 73 percent minority residents. District 3 would fall from 62 percent to 61 percent minority residents. 

In his interview, Joseph would not discuss the details of his plan except to say it would propose having two council seats with territory on the west bank. 

But he noted that his district population includes the Ascension Parish Prison. That essentially lowers the effective number of voters, though the prison inmates are counted for reapportionment. 

Joseph said he hopes to unveil a proposal that would bring minority percentages in his district closer to 74 percent or 75 percent. 

Council Districts 9, 10 and 11 on the east bank also see significant shifts to the west under the remap proposals. 

Councilman Benny Johnson, who represents District 11, said the councilmen are discussing changes to the three districts that would straighten out proposed lines. He said he would like to see changes that make sense for everybody. 

Councilmen Todd Lambert and Dennis Cullen said they are generally satisfied with the proposals for their respective Districts 9 and 10, though they propose significant changes.