Hamby, Wright give green light for legislature to manipulate Athens’ commission districts

ACC Commissioners Mike Hamby and Allison Wright have given the go-ahead for the Georgia Legislative Assembly to change Athens’ commission districts as they see fit, even if those changes would cause confusion in the upcoming local election or target some commissioners for removal. 

Background

Once every decade, local governments use census data to redraw political district boundaries. When drawn, they send their new maps to the Georgia Office of Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment for certification. After that process is complete, the Georgia Legislative Assembly may make further changes as needed before giving their final approval.

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Unfortunately, due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the census data arrived late this year and has compressed the redistricting timeline. The ACC Geospatial Information Office was only able to start drawing new commission districts on October 11, but in a normal year it would have already been complete by then. Even so, they finished a first draft while being overseen by the ACC Board of Elections, and submitted that draft to the commission for a vote which took place on November 16.

First draft of the new maps

The first draft of the new commission district maps was quite conservative, with many commission districts not changing at all. 

Proposed new commission districts, first draft

A majority of commissioners voted to approve the new map on November 16, but Commissioners Allison Wright, Ovita Thornton and Mike Hamby voted no. Despite this, the map was sent on to the state reapportionment office for certification. The reapportionment office rejected it and asked for several changes, including making the new districts more equal in terms of population.

“The reapportionment office encouraged us, strongly, to get down from 9.4 percent deviation [between districts] to about one to one and a half percent,” ACC Chief Data Officer Joseph D’Angelo told commissioners at their December 14 voting meeting. “That was a surprise to us, a surprise that cropped up less than a week ago.”

Second draft of the new maps

This means D’Angelo had to push his staff to create a new set of maps quickly, which they did in time for the meeting last Tuesday. Their work resulted in a second draft where the proposed districts have nearly identical populations.

Athens-Clarke County proposed commission district changes
Athens’ old commission districts are shown on the left. The proposed second draft of the new districts is on the right.

“This is the most balanced map we’ve ever had. This really is a great representation of the one-person, one-vote principle,” D’Angelo said.

In a further wrinkle, Athens’ state legislative delegation, which is controlled by Republicans, let commissioners know that they expected a unanimous vote on the new maps. They would view any dissent on the commission as a reason to take away local control over map creation.

ACC Manager Blaine Williams reminded the commission of this fact ahead of the vote. “Our local delegation, they would like a unanimous vote on it,” he said.

Commissioners debate

Some commissioners gave dire predictions of what would happen if the vote on the second draft was not unanimous. 

Commissioner Tim Denson
Commissioner Tim Denson

“If we don’t choose these maps, the state legislature is going to choose the maps without any public input,” said Commissioner Tim Denson. “One of the most important things to me is trying not to disrupt our constituents’ lives. I fear that the state does not have that as a priority.”

“I’ve heard murmurs already about combining districts to put individuals who are left-leaning in one district to basically try and oust somebody from office,” said Commissioner Russell Edwards. “If that’s what happens here, we should expect some tumultuous changes to the government, akin to what we saw in Gwinnett County during the special session, where the Republican-controlled delegation basically restructures a Democratic-leaning city government to greater align with the goals of the Republican party.”

Commissioner Ovita Thornton, headshot
Commissioner Ovita Thornton

Thornton motioned to accept the maps, but seemed to do so only for procedural reasons. She then spoke against her own motion, and when it came time for a vote, she abstained. Her concerns were entirely about a perceived lack of public input into this process, even though input from the public was of course accepted at this meeting like normal. D’Angelo even met virtually with some Athens residents to explain the process behind the changes, which are minor and affect very few people.

However, more time for public input would have been possible had the census data not been late, a point which Commissioner Mariah Parker made as they spoke in favor of accepting the maps. “I don’t think any of us are happy with the process of input, but I do think it is very dangerous not to submit anything at all.”

Regarding a perceived lack of public input, Commissioner Melissa Link said she was “much more concerned with putting this in the hands of our Republican legislative delegation, because they play dirty. They obviously have very little concern for the needs and wants of this community.”

Commissioner Allison Wright
Commissioner Allison Wright

Wright disagreed, and brought up a specific concern she had with the map. She was concerned about using Gran Ellen Drive as the border between her district and district 7. “The map takes a very small neighborhood street in my district and makes more than half of the people’s mailboxes on the opposite side of the street,” she said. “I can’t look at my constituents and say, ‘I voted it’s okay for your mailbox to be in a different district.’”

Despite her comment, this change may not have been so important to Wright after all. Denson suggested that the district 4 – district 7 border be left unchanged from the old maps, and asked if Wright would then give her approval. In response, Wright said, “This is a little too late to go through the nitty gritty. I’m not going to sit here and banter through the long list of things that have been the issues. I don’t want to waste anyone else’s time on this process,” indicating that she was a firm ‘no’ vote on approving any map similar to the current one.

Regarding the concerns about public input, Parker asked if the item could be held for a week to give time to better communicate with the public, saying “This is pretty important, this is about democracy,” but this plea seemed to have no effect. Regardless of what was offered, commissioners who disapproved of the maps continued to hold firm.

“If anybody would have wanted to articulate some specific elements of a path forward, that opportunity has existed,” said Mayor Kelly Girtz, seeming to indicate that he felt compromise was impossible at this stage.

Mike Hamby
Commissioner Mike Hamby

Hamby remained silent, notably so, throughout this whole discussion. When it came time for a vote, he voted ‘no’ along with Wright, making the final tally 7-2 with Thornton abstaining.

The second draft of the proposed new commission districts will now be sent to the state reapportionment office for certification. The maps may be modified significantly by the state legislature, who will then vote to approve them sometime early next year.

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