Parish will have to hurry to remap - Only a month after census data arrive

Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA) - Friday, January 14, 2011
Author: Christine Harvey St. Tammany bureau

St. Tammany Parish won't get local results of the 2010 census until next month, and that will leave the Parish Council little time for redrawing district boundaries in order to hold council elections as scheduled this fall. 

The U.S. Census Bureau is expected to release the parish's population numbers in early February, leaving only a month or so for the parish to complete its plan, in which it will redistribute the parish's population among its 14 council districts. The council then must adopt the plan by April and submit it to the U.S. Justice Department for acceptance. 

The timeline is tight because the parish's Home Rule Charter stipulates that the council must adopt its redistricting plan at least six months prior to the next election for council members. In this case, the next election is set for Oct. 22, meaning that the council must adopt the plan by April 22 or thereabouts. 

The council recognizes that time is short and already has hired Allan Cartier, a local planning consultant who prepared the redistricting plans for the parish in 1991 and 2001, to put together the 2011 plan. As a former parish manager under the police jury system, Cartier is uniquely qualified to handle the project, said Mike Sevante, administrator for the Parish Council. 

Cartier said he expects to receive the population numbers by Feb. 3 and to present a plan to the council in time to place the matter on the council's March 3 agenda for introduction. By law, the ordinance must lay over until the council's April 7 meeting, which would be the council's first opportunity to vote to adopt it. 

Cartier will present his ideas to the public sometime after Feb. 3 and before the council takes a final vote, Sevante said. Cartier noted that he is operating under the assumption that the six-month rule is related to the council adopting the plan, not the Justice Department approving it. 

Possible vote pushback 

Should the council be unable to adopt the plan in time, or should the Justice Department find fault with it, the state could postpone the elections for Parish Council until the next regularly scheduled election date, Feb. 11, 2012, the date of the presidential preference primary, said Jacques Berry, spokesman for the Louisiana secretary of state's office. 

The state doesn't have a provision for special elections in these kinds of cases, so an election in November or December, for instance, wouldn't be possible, he said. The start of the council's next four-year term is set for Jan. 1, 2012. 

Councilman Steve Stefancik was president of the parish's police jury in 1991, the last time the council elections and redistricting were set for the same year. Some residents objected to the plan at that time, leading the Justice Department to reject it and causing the council elections to be postponed until the next year. 

Stefancik said he doubts that the council will make the deadline this year, either. If that scenario happens, he said the sitting council members would stay in office a few more months until an election could take place -- the same thing that happened the last time. 

The Oct. 22 elections for parish president, assessor, sheriff and others running parishwide will take place as scheduled because those positions are not affected by the redistricting rule. 

Tangipahoa has faster clock 

Berry noted that 61 of the state's 64 parishes are scheduled to hold council elections in the fall, with 20 or so parishes in the state falling under a Home Rule Charter, or laws adopted by the parish that supersede those of the state. However, not all Home Rule Charters are alike. 

St. Tammany Parish's western neighbor, Tangipahoa Parish, has a charter with an even tighter timeline for adopting a redistricting plan, said Glenn Koepp, secretary of the state Senate and the person in charge of all redistricting activities for the state since 1980. Koepp also runs a consulting business that handles redistricting for various parishes, municipalities, school boards and the like. 

Tangipahoa has a charter that requires its council to adopt a plan six months before qualifying, which is set to take place Sept. 6, he said. Koepp expects to have the plan ready in time, but, if not, he said he doubts a court would prohibit the council elections as long as he can show the parish has made a good faith effort to produce and adopt the plan. 

Parishes without a Home Rule Charter have more time to adopt a redistricting plan, as state law allows elections to take place as long as the Justice Department approves the plan five days prior to the start of the qualifying period, Berry said. 

Justice agency could object 

The only other thing that could hold up the process is an objection to the plan, and a corresponding decision by the Justice Department to reject it and request a new plan. The department has up to 60 days to review a redistricting plan and give preclearance, a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that requires certain states to gain federal approval before changing their election laws to ensure that the change will not discriminate against voters. 

Coincidentally, the plan presented by St. Tammany Parish in 1991 ran afoul of the Justice Department, causing the state to postpone the council elections scheduled to take place that fall until March 1992. 

A group of black residents -- members of the St. Tammany Parish chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference -- wanted the parish to create a stronger minority district, prompting the Justice Department's objection to the plan, Stefancik said. 

The parish had two districts, the 3rd in northwest St. Tammany and the 14th in and around Slidell, with minority populations ranging in the 30 percent to 40 percent range, but none that had a majority of minority residents, he said. Anthony Alfred, a black juror, was in his third term representing the 14th district at the time, he said. 

The parish then worked to create a 14th District with a minority population greater than 50 percent, Stefancik said. The Justice Department ultimately approved that plan, but not in time for the elections to take place as scheduled, he said.