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Gainesville may use 2 different ward maps
Redistricting causing issues for council and schools
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Finding a needle in a haystack might be easier than creating a redistricting map that pleases both Gainesville City Council and Gainesville City Schools Board of Education members.

A map plan from the council has lines school board members want redrawn to better reflect their constituents' interests.

School board members met with Linda Meggers, formerly of the Georgia General Assembly's Reapportionment Office, and City Council members Thursday morning to try to find a solution.

"You have two options here. You can take the plan the city's looking at and has gone pretty far down the road with and alter it to make some areas better, or you have the option of going back to the current plan and seeing if you can come up with different configurations," Meggers told board members.

The school board chose the second option.

The goal?

Find a way to reconcile a population boom in Ward 4, represented by Delores Diaz, with decreased populations in Wards 1 and 2, represented by David Syfan and Maria Calkins, respectively, while trying not to interfere with Sammy Smith's Ward 5 and the minority populations in Ward 3, represented by board chairman Willie Mitchell.

The City Council has the authority under state law to set its own election districts, said Phil Hartley, attorney for the school board. The redistricting must be done in a window of time between the Census data coming out and the upcoming election. City Council members are elected as a group, but school board officials are elected per ward.

"The school board can have a different map from the City Council if we choose to," Smith said.

Meggers wanted to proceed with creating a redistricting map that fits both groups' needs.

The map proposed by the City Council at its meeting last week has Ward 1 stretching from Thompson Bridge Road to McEver Road and Dawsonville Highway.

Ward 2 also covers portions of Thompson Bridge as well as areas on Cornelia and Cleveland highways.

Interstate 985 splits Wards 3 and 4, and Ward 5 includes areas on the other side of McEver, Browns Bridge Road and part of Atlanta Highway.

"You have district 5 sitting here and it's basically a perfect district and shouldn't be touched at all, but it sits in the middle," Meggers said. "Any time you sit in the middle, it's a dangerous place."

Board members tried to start with Ward 1 and move clockwise, shifting nearby neighborhoods and population clusters around in an attempt to get the wards at nearly equal numbers of voters.

The city's plan tries to protect incumbents, council members said in the meeting.

But when a council member lives practically at the junction of three wards, as is the case with George Wangemann in Ward 4, simply shifting neighborhoods around doesn't work.

"Two-hundred fifty people have to come out of (Ward) 4," Meggers said. "Three is right on the nose. Two could have taken some more. But my problem here is you've got this incumbent sitting right here ... I don't see a way out of this one. If you're looking at contiguity and incumbents, we've kind of backed ourselves up against a wall."

The shifts suggested by school board members also decreased the minority population in Ward 3 by two percentage points, something that worried Meggers.

The proposed maps must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of the revised Voting Rights Act to make sure the lines don't weaken the strength of minority votes, which now include language minorities as well as racial.

"Our minority population of Wards 3, 4 and 5 are very large. Those numbers include a large number of illegals who are nonvoters," Diaz said. "I know that population is in flux right now and we have to live with this map for 10 years. What I see is the strength of Wards 3, 4 and 5 shrinking in comparison to 1 and 2."

Another challenge is Gainesville itself.

"Part of the problem is also the shape of the city limit lines," Meggers said. "That limits you as to where you can go for population ... It makes me want to win the lottery and go annex a bunch of stuff for you."

Two hours later when several board members needed to depart, Mitchell called for an end to the meeting with the intention of revisiting the map in the near future.

"We're liking this more," Smith said, reiterating that the board could have a separate map from the City Council.

Diaz said the board does need to meet again to continue educating themselves about the redistricting process.

"It would make more sense to have one map, but I don't know how we're going to decide," she said. "When we were given the city's proposal we didn't have any background. We don't want to rush into a decision. The city's proposal may very well be the best choice. But we would like to investigate that ourselves."