Redistricting Hearing

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 10, 2010

Public hearing organizers pummeled with criticism

By Billy Davis

A small but vocal crowd attended a December 6 public hearing, set to publicize redistricting plans, where they peppered organizers with questions about the process.

Concerns about public input, state and federal laws, and notifying the public were among the topics raised by the group that numbered 20 people.

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Some of the attendees, before and after the hearing, took photos of two maps that showed the current supervisor boundaries in Panola County, apparently concerned about the coming redistricting.

Claim: little ‘public input’

“In the past there was more consideration of public input,” said attendee James Little of Como, “and that doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment.”

“I take exception to that,” planning consultant Mike Slaughter, who helped lead the public hearing, replied.

Slaughter suggested to Little that the public hearing he was attending represented an attempt by the Panola County Board of Supervisors to describe the redistricting process in an open meeting.

Attorney Leslie Scott, hired by Panola County to lend legal advice, told Little that the county board was not required to hold the Monday public hearing – but did so anyway.

Little, when he aired his comment, was speaking during a planned question-and-answer portion of the hearing.

“I think that maybe some of the people who attended — they weren’t informed about what was going on,” Board of Supervisors president Gary Thompson said after the meeting.

“It was a hearing to inform the public about the process. That’s all,” Thompson said.

Census figures coming

Supervisors are preparing to tackle redistricting in early 2011, when U.S. Census figures are released to show population shifts in Panola County. The figures are used to adjust political boundaries to ensure an equal number of votes — “one man, one vote” — in the county’s five districts.

Panola County’s public school districts are also awaiting census data in order to redraw their lines.

Supervisors have been told to expect the figures in February, then they will work against an impossible deadline to tweak boundaries accordingly, hold a public hearing to announce their decisions, then send the results to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval — all before the March 1 qualifying deadline for 2011 county elections.

 The collision of redistricting and an election year falls every 20 years, forcing public officials to decide whether to move qualifying deadlines or hope the boundary lines show little movement.

Panola supervisors decided in November to keep the March qualifying deadline, hoping the county repeats the smooth process from two decades earlier.

The Board of Supervisors is also aware that the U.S. Department of Justice has oversight of redistricting decisions. Supervisors, heeding advice from Scott and Slaughter, set the December 6 public hearing to describe the coming process, believing the decision would reflect well when the plan is reviewed next year.

A court reporter was present in the courtroom and recorded the one-hour hearing.   

The public hearing was held at the county courthouse in Batesville, where all five county supervisors attended along with board attorney Bill McKenzie and County Administrator Kelley Magee.

Chancery Clerk Jim Pitcock and Circuit Clerk Joe Reid also attended the hearing.

Attorney, planner describe process

Before entertaining questions, Slaughter and Scott tag-teamed a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation that explained the how, when and why of the coming redistricting.  

Scott began by explaining that the public hearing was not intended to present a redistricting plan, since census figures are not available yet.

Slaughter then used the slide show to describe the purpose of redistricting, namely that population shifts of more than ten percent trigger a mandatory move of boundary lines to ensure “equal distribution” in Panola County’s five districts.

The Department of Justice requires the movement of the boundary lines, he further explained.

Using a laser pointer, Slaughter pointed out that boundary lines were moved after the 2000 Census to show a 4.3 percent difference in population in the smallest district, District 5, and the largest, District 4.  

Slaughter went on to describe a five-step plan that included a public hearing to show the census figures, work sessions with supervisors to discuss the boundary lines, another public hearing to present the plan and gather public feedback, and finally adoption of a plan that is sent to the Department of Justice.

If approved, the federal agency will send a formal letter stating it has “no objections” to the plan.

Questions fly about process

During the question-and-answer period, Little spoke first.

“What problems does Mississippi have to allow it to receive census data before April?”

“There is not a problem,” Slaughter replied. “There is a late receiving of data…It happens every 20 years. It’s a time crunch.”

Little then questioned the “formula” used to determine the ten-percent change.

 “It’s national,” Scott replied, apparently referring to Department of Justice oversight.

Verna Hunter asked how the Board of Supervisors would inform the public if census figures fall below a ten-percent change, a situation that would not require a public hearing.

“I think the Board of Supervisors can determine how to inform the public,” Slaughter replied. That answer was followed by Little’s “in the past” statement, then Slaughter’s “take exception” reply.

Hunter then reframed her earlier question and asked it again, and Slaughter answered it as he had done minutes earlier.

Another attendee suggested that the public had not been properly informed of the meeting. Scott noted that the date of the public hearing had been mentioned in a story in The Panolian, where a public notice had been published.

Supervisors had discussed the hearing in a public meeting where board minutes are kept, the attorney also said.

When other attendees peppered Scott and Slaughter with questions about publicizing the redistricting, the attorney assured the gathered crowd that supervisors would make their plans public, citing the current public hearing as evidence.

“I don’t think it will be a secret what they do,” she said.

The questioning concluded when Larry Wright asked the purpose of the “rezoning” by the Board of Supervisors

Scott then repeated Slaughter’s explanation of “one man, one vote,” and an equal population.

Hunter: circuit clerk gave wrong info

Reached after the public hearing, Hunter said she attended to learn information for the North Panola School Board, where she is a trustee.

Hunter said she took photos of the district maps after she tried unsuccessfully to get a similar map from Reid, the circuit clerk.

“When I ran for school board, they gave me the wrong information about how the lines are drawn,” Hunter said, also referring to the circuit clerk’s office.

 Hunter said Slaughter and Scott “did a good job describing the process.”

Supervisor: some ‘didn’t understand’

Supervisor Vernice Avant said some of the attendees may have attended the hearing after she announced it at area churches.

“I think some of them didn’t understand (the hearing) was held to inform them of the process,” she said. “When you have to tell them two and three times…I don’t know. They were expecting something that wasn’t taking place.”