By Richard Sullins |

Tensions flared over transparency and other issues during a discussion of the Sanford City Council’s efforts to redraw boundaries of its electoral wards at public hearing on Sept. 21.

The primary bone of contention was the late appearance of a fourth map proposal, labeled Plan D, on the council’s agenda just a few days prior to the meeting. Plan D was reportedly developed at the request of Ward 4 Councilman Byron Buckels. Earlier in September, the council had been given three plans to consider.

Ward 1 Councilman Sam Gaskins began the public hearing portion of the meeting by announcing his support for Plan A because of its easily identifiable boundaries along major thoroughfares, its compactness, and clear compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He also took issue with Plan D.

“I have a problem with an elected official becoming involved, especially with a lack of transparency, because it was not done in a meeting out publicly, and the opportunity has been there to say, we need an additional plan,” Gaskins said. “So, I have a real serious concern about how it appears that we all of a sudden come up with a new plan. I don’t believe elected officials should be involved in doing these things outside our scope of responsibility and inside a public meeting.”

Buckels later told The Rant he met with Kovasckitz after the September 7 meeting to learn how the maps were drawn up and share his concerns about population growth coming to the city and where that growth was projected to be.

Buckels told The Rant that the “majority of the growth based on approved and housing units in review, according to our planning department at the current time, indicates Ward 5 (2,113 units) showed the highest project numbers, followed by Ward 2 (1,382 units), Ward 3 (1,027 units), Ward 1 (680 units), and Ward 4 (335 units).”

Buckels said in an email to The Rant that he didn’t understand Gaskins’ issues with sending the materials to members of the council at the last minute.

“Plan D was included in our city council agenda when it was sent out to the council on September 17,” he wrote. “However, there was a comparison chart of Plan A and Plan D that the council received on the day of the meeting.”

Ward 3 Councilman J.D. Williams said “as for Plan D, tonight is my first time seeing any of it. I did have a phone conversation with one of the staff members about the new plan and was told that if I had any questions about the new plan, we’d get together. But that didn’t happen.”

Ward 2 Councilman Charles Taylor said Plan D was an attempt to plunder minority voters from his ward.

“This plan is an advertisement for Ward 4,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to grow the least until they are completed. I see – I got this late Friday afternoon without any real notification – that my area, which [includes] Weatherspoon Street, a very defined area, six blocks of my area was poached, and I lost arguably my minority area in my Ward, and I lost some of that area. And that’s a very key upsetting thing for me because I represent those people as much as I represent anybody else in my ward.”

Taylor’s comments did not sit well with Buckels, who was shaking his head as Taylor reached the end of his statement.

As discussion turned to the merits of the plans themselves, Taylor expressed his preference for Plan C, one of the two plans that the council decided to present to the public at its September 7 meeting, although he said he would support Plan A.

“I like the definite lines. That’s the reason I support Plan A. I do prefer Plan C, personally, because I like the block style and it’s easier for people to shave off population on all four sides of a block than it is to do a long strip,” he said.

But an opinion from a Raleigh-based legal firm specializing in government relations dated September 17 and given to the council at the meeting said Plan C contained potential violations of the Voting Rights Act because it would have under-populated the African American population of Ward 3 at 24.6 percent, compared to more than 30 percent in each of the remaining three plans.

Plan C was then eliminated from further consideration at the suggestion of Ward 5 Councilwoman Rebecca Wyhof Salmon.

Buckels again made a pitch for his Plan D.

“It’s about population, trying to make it as close to the deviation of zero as we can,” he said. “That’s what it’s about. All this other stuff about votes and gerrymandering, honestly, I didn’t expect that to come from either one of y’all. I thought we would have some really good conversation just about what it is.”

Mayor Chet Mann sought to bring closure to the discussion by saying that members of the council had spoken passionately about their feelings but that no one had done so with intent to harm or injure another member.

“We’re all just trying to do the right thing,” he said. “I think the council preferred, but didn’t demand, solid boundary lines, because we’ve never had one. That’s a fair thing. Byron [Buckels] is just fighting for his ward and I think his intentions are fairly noble here. I don’t think he’s trying to gerrymander or anything. I think he’s just fighting for his ward. Whether we agree with that or feel like that’s fair, it’s okay. This is a public hearing. Let’s just keep it that way because we’ve done too much good work up to this point.”

But Salmon asked whether the council should delay a vote on which plan should be put forward to the public at the final public hearing on October 5.

“I think that we may have to table this,” she said. “I have always been about public transparency and if that’s where we are at today, then the problem last week is still the problem this week. I don’t think this needs to be an acrimonious process.”

Taylor said “the reason why this was tabled at the last meeting was because of transparency. It was also tabled because we didn’t feel like everybody had had a chance to look at everything. That, in my opinion, doesn’t constitute us to go back to the drawing board and start doing other stuff. And that’s what kind of hits me wrong about this whole thing. So far as the smell test is concerned, that’s what really I have a problem with.”

Gaskins offered a motion to move forward with Plan A, which can be viewed here, and present it to the public at the final public hearing. Five members voted in favor of the motion, with members Williams and Buckels choosing not to vote. In response to a question from Taylor, Mann said that a non to vote was considered a “yes” vote, making the decision unanimous.

Despite the the debate within the council over its past two meetings on redistricting, not a single member of the public came to speak on any of the plans that were proposed. Buckels said he wasn’t surprised.

“I wasn’t disappointed by the fact that no one showed up, but I do wish that the public would get more involved in these types of processes because it really affects them too,” he said.

The council’s next meeting is set for Tuesday, October 5 at 6 p.m. and will include the conclusion of the public hearing on redistricting of the city’s wards.