By Richard Sullins | email@example.com
A multi-month process to redraw electoral districts for the Lee County Board of Commissioners ended Monday night after a tense meeting in which a Republican plan to adopt a proposal which had not been presented to the public before two weeks ago passed along party lines.
So-called “Plan F” was adopted 4-3 Monday night, with the board’s Republican majority prevailing. The vote followed discussion among the board’s members and comments from the public criticizing the majority’s lack of transparency in developing the new map.
Plan F faced criticism on Oct. 4, not only over its surprise appearance, but also because it appeared to reduce the number of African-American residents in the county’s only majority-minority district.
Several citizens showed up Monday to express their displeasure. Linda Rhodes of Sanford was the first to the podium and said the commissioners’ process in drawing up the maps “lacked the transparency that Lee County voters have experienced in the past and the respect that our citizens deserve.”
“Even though the county attorney advised against it, at least two county commissioners requested information that North Carolina courts have ruled should not be considered when drawing electoral maps. (Republican) Commissioners (Kirk) Smith and (Bill) Carver made it known that they wanted to use political and voter data to create maps, therefore partisan data for political gain,” she said.
Rhodes said “it is clear that Map F was created for only one purpose – to dilute the minority population in District 1,” represented by Democratic Commissioner Robert Reives Sr.
“This board has also failed to solicit any public comments on Map F’s potential changes to minority opportunity districts,” Rhodes continued. “Without a public hearing, voters have been denied the right to ask questions, provide suggestions, or hold the board accountable before a vote occurs. The four commissioners that have engaged in this underhanded and unethical behavior have only one concern – they only care about not getting caught with their hand in the cookie jar.”
Lacrecia Reives went further, saying “the Lee County Board of Commissioners’ proposed Plan F manipulates District 1 and undermines the ability for black voters in Lee County to elect their candidate of choice. The same tactics of excluding black voters that led Lee County to change its election methods and place the county under the scrutiny of the Voting Rights Act are at work again in proposed Plan F.”
Other speakers included former Democratic State Rep. Leslie Cox, who warned the board about potential consequences if district lines were drawn based on anything other than population.
“If what you’re talking about doing happens tonight, your attorney had better start eating her Wheaties because it looks like that map draws the ire of the most people in this county,” he said.
But it was soft-spoken Brenda Johnson of Sanford who spoke directly to the heart of what is at stake in the redistricting process.
“The same tactics of excluding black voters that led Lee County to change its election methods and place the county under the scrutiny of the Voting Rights Act [in 1989] are at work again,” she said.
Johnson also brought the matter to the attention of the Durham nonprofit the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
A letter from the group’s legal counsel, Mitchell Brown, had been placed at each of the commissioners’ seats prior to the start of the meeting. Brown wrote that his nonprofit civil rights organization “partners with communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities in the South to defend and advance their political, social, and economic rights through the combination of legal advocacy, research, organizing, and communications.”
The letter reminded commissioners of a lawsuit filed by the Lee County Chapter of the NAACP in 1989 that led to an overhaul of the county’s district lines and the way it elected its commissioners. It went on to claim that Plan F, drawn up shortly before the October 4 meeting, was developed “behind closed doors in a process that lacked the transparency needed to instill public confidence” in both the process and the product.
In an interview with The Rant, Brown accused the Republican commissioners of running “a Houdini show” with the final three versions of the plan that did not receive a proper opportunity for the public to review and comment before the next one was produced. He said his organization will be looking at the voting age population data to see how the increase or decrease among minorities tracks with the general population and that their review is ongoing.
After 50 minutes of public comments, the board began a heated, hour-long discussion of its options, in which Democrats attempted to hone their basic point – that Republicans had confused the public in order to affect a reverse-engineered, gerrymandered map so that they could hold onto their political advantage.
Democratic commissioners during the meeting proposed the adoption of two other versions of the political boundary maps, Plans A and G, and each attempt failed along party lines. City and County GIS Strategic Services Director Don Kovasckitz explained again that Plan A showed the smallest change from the existing map adopted in 2011. Further iterations offered greater differences from the current map.
Plan G, like its two immediate predecessors, was produced with virtually no public notice shortly before the meeting. It was apparently an effort to conceptualize a compromise that Reives had offered for moving only half of the voters into his district that Plan F would have mandated.
With the defeat of Plans A and G, Democratic Commissioner Cameron Sharpe went on the offensive.
“I know what the end game is here. I think the end game is to try to put Mr. Reives out in the next election. It is glaringly evident,” he said. “And I think it is a shame, it’s morally and ethically wrong.”
Sharpe asked on two occasions “why this [Plan F] is the best map for Lee County.”
After 15 seconds of total silence Republican Commissioner Andre Knecht said “I think that, as all the other maps as well do, it meets all the necessary parameters and does take into account the future growth as well that may be coming. It may throw some things out of balance.”
“I don’t feel that this was set up as a map that is to, as you put it, oust Commissioner Reives. I don’t think that at all,” Knecht continued. “I have nothing but the utmost respect for the gentleman and he is aware of that. So, I think it’s a good map. It meets all the parameters. It’s compact, contiguous, keeps the precincts, keeps a majority-minority district.”
Sharpe responded, “I think about 10 people in this building believe what you just said about taking Mr. Reives out of his district, and that’s no disrespect to you. But I think there’s about 10 who believe that.”
The prospect that the plan might be challenged in court was on the mind of at least one of the Republican commissioners. Carver looked directly at Sharpe and said “if someday we have to stand in front of a judge and justify why we picked (Plan F), everything that I have said is consistent with that. There was no motivation at the beginning of designing this plan to intentionally disenfranchise anybody. And when we got finished, we looked at what the percentages of the population are and there was not a significant change in it. So, it wasn’t a question of being slick or whatever. It’s just a question of picking one that I think works.”
After the vote, discussion continued. Republican Vice Chair Arianna Lavallee said “Plan F met the criteria. It met what needed to be met and I strongly object any untrue claims that this was an effort to remove a commissioner from his seat. It’s untrue and it’s unfounded and I object [to] that claim. I want to make that very public.”
Sharpe, formerly an elected Republican prior to his party switch in 2015, disagreed.
“Well, I want to make it very clear to rebut what Ms. Lavallee said,” he said. “It’s been that way for eight or 10 years, that it was the plan.”
It was Smith who ended the two-hour public session of the board’s meeting with this reflection on the redistricting process.
“There was no intent to disthrone [sic] or dethrone or take anyone out of their district,” he said. “We were talking about such percentages that were so small that essentially it’s, well, you’ve all heard the old adage of government business being about like watching sausage being made and I apologize for that, but it seems to be what happened this evening.”