By Richard Sullins |

As Lee County commissioners began to hear more about the five versions of a redistricting plan that will determine where four of its members will be elected from for the next decade, the discussion at the board’s meeting on September 20 became tense when concerns arose that political affiliation and voter participation may have been considered in drawing the maps.

After Lee County GIS Strategic Services Director Don Kovasckitz reviewed the process the county will have to follow, County Attorney Whitney Parrish outlined the rules the board will have to follow in drawing maps that will be presented to the public at a hearing on October 4.

Five maps were reviewed by commissioners at their meeting on September 20, but Republican Commissioner Bill Carver seemed confused that a sixth map that he had been led to believe would be presented was not among those included in Kovasckitz’s presentation.

Commissioners viewed four possible versions of district boundaries on September 8. Since then, a fifth map has been added that creates district boundaries more closely balanced by the number of residents. The proposed maps, along with the current version, can be found on the county’s website.

“I wish that (Board Chairman Kirk Smith) was here tonight. I was under the impression that we had some options that were significantly different, and I was expecting to see something like that,” Carver said. “In the conversation with the chairman that had to do with some different options for, shall we say, District 2, and how you are actually defining the district. It could be that I was just out of the loop or something and missed the fact that we were going to ask for those, but they are not here tonight.”

Smith, Republican, was absent from the meeting.

Democratic Commissioner Cameron Sharpe asked “Don, can you assure us that these maps were drawn up by using population alone and not on political consideration or affiliation?”

“They were drawn correctly not using any political or voter data,” Kovascitz replied. “But I’ve got to bring it up, that we did have an attorney consult on these plans, and they did ask, ‘did we consider we consider any partisan or election data?’ So, while we were creating these plans, no. But subsequent to creating Plan E, once we had all those plans, we were asked to pull voter registration data. So, subsequent to these plans, I have considered voter data as I considered voter registration data.”

Commissioner Robert Reives, a Democrat, asked “first, let me find out, is that okay?”

“It wasn’t considered in drawing the districts,” Parrish replied. “It’s public record. There’s nothing wrong with just pulling the data and having that available. But when drawing the maps, it was not a consideration, so I think that is sufficient. If it had been used in drawing the maps, I think that would be a different story. When the maps were drawn, it was only looking at the population numbers and there was no consideration of voter registration information and there was no consideration of partisanship data.”

Carver asked “how about the number of people who voted in the area?” and Parrish replied “no, sir.”

Kovasckitz explained that his office is hesitant to look at anything other than total population in drawing maps because existing case law says only population may be considered.

Reives then stated “I didn’t come to this meeting to figure out how to violate the law. I came here to review the appropriate information as it relates to redistricting. I’m not going to waste my time sitting here arguing about trying to figure out how we get around the law.”

Carver responded “that’s not my goal, trying to figure out how to violate the law. My purpose is trying to use the law to have as much flexibility as I can while we are making recommendations on the apportionment.”

“When the lawyers constantly tell you what you can and cannot do, and should not do, and you keep looking for a way around that, I consider that a waste of my good time,” Reives responded.

After further discussion that seemed to move the matter no closer to resolution, Commissioner Andre Knecht moved to present Plans A and E at a public hearing on Monday, October 4, and the motion passed unanimously.

The Rant reported last week, based on emails obtained in a public information request, that Smith had requested the “political breakdown” of each of the district proposals, a move that could have opened the door to a partisan gerrymandering lawsuit. Smith provided an email over the weekend that was not included in the batch released last week showing that he’d since decided his request “is certainly a legal conundrum, and as such I will retract the request to redrawing new districts, based on my previous parameters.”

In other business, the board approved a five-year franchise with FirstHealth of the Carolinas to provide emergency medical transport services within the county for a total amount of $4,227,818 over the period. Approval was also given to lease the county-owned facility at 1218 Central Drive to FirstHealth for 60 days at a rate of $5,186 per month, to be followed by a longer-term lease than will run for the remaining term of the franchise agreement.

Also, the county will receive just under $12 million in American Relief Plan Act (ARPA) funding as part of the Biden Administration’s COVID relief package. Commissioners voted to spend $70,000 of those funds to hire a program administrator and another $20,000 on a consultant to locate matching grants that will support the program’s efforts. The final rules on how funds can be expended are awaiting approval at the federal level.