Athens News Matters: 3 Local Lawmakers Might Lose Their Seats Under New District Map
Just after we finalized our show for broadcast last week, local political observers were stunned by a proposed new map of Athens Clarke County Commission districts put out by the four Republican members of the county’s state legislative delegation.
That map, if passed by state lawmakers, would make big changes to the county's current commission districts and leave three incumbent commissioners and thousands of voters sitting on the sidelines when five commission districts are on the ballot this year.
Earlier this week, District 3’s Melissa Link and District 5’s Tim Denson, sat down with our colleague Martin Matheny to talk about the proposed changes.
WUGA's Martin Matheny also sat down with District 7's Russell Edwards:
This transcript with Melissa Link and Tim Denson has been edited for clarity
So first of all, for listeners who are not immersed in the minutiae of redistricting, I kind of want to provide some context and talk about how we got here. So let me start with you Commissioner Denson.
Can you kind of take us through the redistricting process and how we got to this point?
Sure, well you know every ten years after the census data comes out, local governments are required to basically do reapportionment, where we ensure that there is an equal number of constituent population for each commissioner. Here in in Athens-Clarke County, that process got slowed down quite a bit by the delays that happened in the census and then delay in the census information getting to us.
So everything got kind of squeezed into a tighter timeframe, but our staff went through and created maps as fast as they could and as equal as they could, and they worked through the Board of Elections to have those be pre-approved by the Board of Elections before they came back to the Commission and we approved them.
We have to send them to the state level. to the state Reapportionment Office for them to be basically pre-approved, authorized by the Reapportionment Office, saying that they kind of hit all of the necessary criteria. Those maps were sent back to us - to the Commission - for us to do final approval, and to then send them to our local legislative delegation - all of the State House and State Senate members that represent Athens-Clarke County, for them to then carry and adopt at the state level as our new maps.
Unfortunately, things didn't run all smoothly through that process. Two commissioners, Mike Hamby and Allison Wright voted no, and Ovita Thornton abstaining on those final maps.
We instead sent maps that had seven Commissioners voting in approval to our local delegation, but they said that they needed to have full consensus for them to adopt those maps. So instead they have drawn their own, putting us where we are now.
The reason that I wanted to talk to you two, as well as your colleague Russell Edwards, is the three of you seem to be the most heavily affected by this proposed map and all three of you, it looks like you're going to be drawn out of your districts.
I want to talk a little bit about how your districts are changing, so let me start with you, Commissioner Link. How does District 3 look now, versus how it looks under this proposed map?
District 3 doesn't exist anymore in its former shape; there is no one in the new District 3 who was in the old district 3. They erased District 3 off the map and they gave some of its territory to District 2, a little bit to District 5, and some to District 9.
And then they created a whole new district on the east side over around Winterville and rural East Athens that they're now calling District 3. And the irony of this whole situation is of all the ten districts, District 3 was the one that, in its population, had changed the least, so the initial maps that staff presented had zero changes to District 3.
And Commissioner Denson. What does District 5 look like under this proposed map?
You know it was also a very diverse district. It was almost a minority-majority district with 49% of the district being minority, and basically now they have reduced the number of black voters in District 5, they've reduced the number of Hispanic voters in District 5, and they've done that, actually, throughout most of the county.
While there are a lot of arguments that some of the state legislators have made about trying to increase minority representation, they've actually decreased the percentage of black voters in seven of the ten districts.
And also, by creating doing this whole thing with making a new District 3 and moving District 2, they are now splitting East Athens right down the middle, dividing it in two right down Peter Street.
So this proposed map, this was released by state representatives Houston Gaines and Marcus Wiedower and Senators Bill Cowsert and Frank Ginn - the four Republican members of the local delegation to the General Assembly.
Have either of you had any contact with them?
I have reached out to every one of them, and I have spoken with State Senator Frank Ginn already, and left messages for the rest. Also, I met with Representative Gaines just a few weeks ago over the Christmas holidays in which we talked about redistricting and had a great conversation [in] which it was never let on that they were going to be doing this at all, and they were going to have such an impact on me and my district.
But what I've been asking to them and saying publicly is, you know, all we need to do is just, we just need to compromise. And all this takes is them being willing to work with us to make some adjustments to these maps, to be able to fix the fact that they drew out three of us, to fix the fact that they did split some important communities that need to be whole, such as East Athens.
But this work can all be done. It can all be done. We have time still.
We reached out to Commissioners Link and Hamby earlier in the week, to invite them to appear on Athens News Matters. As of Friday, Commissioner Hamby had not responded. Commissioner Wright declined to be interviewed on air, but did send the statement below:
I explained my no votes for each step of the local redistricting map process while that was unfolding this fall.
I also shared my insights on the priorities I supported for the local redistricting process at the initial work session.
I understand that there are frustrations with the State Delegation's map. My votes were not a part of the state process. The state map and the state delegation summary had very different priorities than what was outlined for the local map, its priorities, and the local process.
As you recall in our last census redistricting process there was a unanimous vote for the local redistricting map ( and it's process ) that was compiled from a committee of elected officials and representatives for each political party.
That map was not used in any way, shape, or form in regard to what the State Legislature passed.
We have basically been under the Doug McKillip map for 10 years and it was frustrating for the community when that unfolded.