Athens-Clarke County Commissioners expressed frustration and dismay with the local redistricting process at their work session on Tuesday. Many of the concerns laid out by local lawmakers revolved around the process and the very short timeline.
When the county went through the process of redrawing local Commission district ten years ago, officials convened a citizens’ committee and hired an outside consultant to help that committee draft new maps for the county’s ten Commission districts. This time, the process originated with the county’s Chief Data Officer, Joseph D’Angelo, who reports to County Manager Blaine Williams. That has some Commissioners, like District 10’s Mike Hamby, concerned.
"It seems a bit awkward, having the managers office put together political maps for basically his bosses," Hamby said.
District 6’s Jesse Houle echoed other Commissioners’ calls for an independent body to draw the new district maps for the county. "Commissioner [Russell] Edwards, I remember bringing up in a past meeting us establishing our own local-level independent redistricting commission like we've been advocating for on the state level," Houle said. "I think would be a great way to kind of pilot that here, and I think that would address some of the valid concerns Commissioner Hamby is bringing up, at least among public perception."
That process would take time however, and Athens-Clarke County, like local governments across the state, doesn’t have much time left. State lawmakers, who have to actually approve new local maps, are expected to take up local redistricting in January, meaning that in order to meet that deadline, Commissioners would have to vote on a map in December. The entire process was significantly curtailed this year because US Census officials were several months behind schedule in releasing the necessary data to states and localities.
One option open to Commissioners is to defer on submitting new maps, but that would require approval from state lawmakers. That prospect was troubling to District 5’s Tim Denson.
"If we don't put a map out there and we request deferral, our deferral [could be] declined and then we get a map drawn without any input from the county at all," Denson said. "I'd actually probably see that as the most likely outcome if we ask for deferral."
If Commissioners were able to defer redistricting - an unpopular idea among the body- the new maps would probably not go into effect until 2024, meaning that the ten current districts would remain in use for the 2022 elections. The current districts, which were balanced in terms of population based on the county’s 2010 Census data, are now significantly out of balance, with some districts having thousands more residents than they did ten years ago.
Tuesday’s meeting was a work session, not a voting meeting, so no actions were taken. But, several Commissioners showed interest in assigning the task of drawing new maps to the county’s Board of Elections.
If Commissioners decide to go ahead with the idea of giving authority to the Board of Elections, it’s possible that Commissioners could take on this issue again at their October 19 agenda-setting meeting. Commissioners could go into special session then to vote on the idea, or schedule a vote for their regular meeting early next month.