published Saturday, June 11th, 2011

Redistricting the county

County Commissioners Fred Skillern and Larry Henry revealed Thursday that Republicans are ready to hash out the centennial drawing of new County Commission districts without public participation — except for the wants of Warren Mackey and Greg Beck, the commission’s only Democrats and African-Americans. Skillern said Thursday that the commission would observe the “precedent” that allows the nine-member commission’s African-Americans to have first go at mapping the districts the way they want to ensure their political needs.

There’s a lot wrong with this picture for everyone — with the possible exception of the current commissioners.

Skillern’s presumptuous approach can be expected to increase gerrymandering and irrationally odd-shaped districts, all to satisfy the intentions of the incumbents. But it will do nothing to encourage rational civic dialogue with respect to bipartisan political needs and racial diversity.

There is a legitimate civil rights and court-mandated need to arrange districts that reflect proportional minority representation in the ultimate make-up of the County Commission. That is necessary to meet federal guidelines in elections for racial parity in representation.

Regardless, Mackey and Beck should not be allowed, or desire, to draw districts that concentrate the political force and interests of the community’s entire black population into just two districts. With more attention to the broad interests of the African-American community, it may be possible to arrange district precincts with likely majorities in at least two districts, but also with a larger share of blacks holding influence on the political agenda in at least a third district.

The whites on the present County Commission, as well, should not be allowed to gerrymander districts that suit just their personal political interests. Hamilton County would be better served if the districts were drawn to be more compact, contiguous and diverse. The ridiculously split 2nd District, for example, lumps Signal Mountain and parts of Red Bank and Mountain Creek together with the county’s share of Lookout Mountain and Tiftonia, though the latter two sections of the county would more logically be included with the district that contains St. Elmo.

County commissioners should step back and, as many communities do, allow creation of a nonpartisan redistricting advisory commission to propose compact, contiguous, nonpartisan and racially diverse districts. That would encourage civic participation in county government and the county school system, whose board districts mirror the County Commission’s districts.

Members could be drawn from civic groups with help from UTC’s political science department. We hardly expect this to occur, to be sure. The politics and short-sighted vision of what county government should be about seems lost on current commission members. But that’s the problem. With public support, competent redistricting could jump-start a better alternative.

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