Lee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Kirk Smith solicited – and ultimately decided against using – the services of an outside law firm and redistricting expert for the re-drawing of the county’s electoral maps, publicly released emails show.
The Rant made two public records requests for emails involving redistricting – required of the board every ten years following the decennial U.S. Census – after discussion at the board’s meeting on Sept. 8. The first batch released showed that Smith had subsequently asked for the “political breakdown” of each proposed district.
The request was notable because courts in North Carolina have ruled that partisan political data shouldn’t be considered when drawing electoral maps, and rules adopted by the North Carolina General Assembly for the drawing of its own districts also forbid its use.
A second batch of emails released on Tuesday show that Smith, a member of the board’s Republican majority, went a step further on Sept. 10, saying in an email to other members of the board that he wanted districts drawn “based on the number of ‘Registered Voters,’ use major thoroughfares as boundaries, east-west and north-south. Keep Carolina Trace intact in either District Two or Three. Provide a political profile of each proposed district based on registered Democrats, Republicans, and Unaffiliated voters.”
But Smith later rescinded this request on Sept. 13, after County Attorney Whitney Parrish sent the commissioners a legal memo explaining multiple reasons “it seems likely a court would determine these factors unlawful and unconstitutional under (the) North Carolina Constitution.”
Earlier on the same day, Smith received an engagement letter via email from Craig Schauer, an attorney with Brooks Pierce, a law firm with offices in Raleigh and Greensboro, offering to create and present “no more than three map configurations” for a fee of $18,000. That fee would have been split evenly between the firm for legal services and Peter A. Morrison & Associates for what the letter described as “Expert Map Services.”
Smith, who was absent from a meeting on Monday at which there was a unanimous vote to move forward with a public hearing Oct. 4 on two older sets of maps already presented to the board by county staff, said via email Thursday morning that he and At-Large Commissioner Bill Carver – who Smith said had learned of Harnett County’s use of the Brooks Pierce firm for redistricting – “determined that the $18,000 cost was a non-starter.”
Smith further wrote that he rescinded his request because of the “timely advice regarding the parameters I had initially requested.”
“The County Attorney’s analysis and summary put things in a legal light that I was not fully aware,” Smith wrote to The Rant.
Prior to Smith rescinding of his request for new maps drawn using the criteria Parrish wrote would be “unlawful and unconstitutional,” the emails showed relatively broad support for the request his fellow Republicans.
“I am confirming support for this request. This data is relative and important in the process of redistricting,” District 4 Commissioner Arianna Lavallee wrote in an email to County Manager John Crumpton on Sept. 13.
“Just heard from (Carver) and (he) approves receiving this information,” Crumpton wrote to Smith on the same day. “I just need to know that all four Republicans are on board with this request and I will start (staff) on the breakdown.”
But an earlier email from Crumpton showed reluctance on the part of county staff to grant the request for political data, largely for the same reasons Parrish cited.
“If the majority wishes to pass a map based on the criteria you have listed and any group of minorities feel they are impacted by this decision we will need to hire outside counsel to represent the Board in the case of a lawsuit. This is a partisan issue now since partisan data will be used to draw the districts which is what the lawsuit against the Legislature was all about. Having our attorneys present the Board in a 100 percent partisan issue is inappropriate,” he wrote. “I want to also caution the Board that going down this road will bring a lot of publicity to Lee County that will impact our economic development efforts.”