Planning team has strategy, goals for redrawing district lines

Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 10:05pm

The Metro Planning Department said Thursday it has prepared a strategy for what will be a quick turnaround time for having redistricting finalized before the May 19 deadline for Metro Council candidates to qualify for the August elections.

Rick Bernhardt, the planning department’s executive director, said the department can complete the process within one week of receiving final U.S. Census Bureau data. When contacted Thursday, a Census Bureau official said the numbers for Tennessee will be delivered between March 14-31. The Census Bureau is supposed to give states and municipalities a few days notice before sending.

“Our software is in place and our people are ready,” Bernhardt said in a release. “We just need the data.”

Bernhardt said he wants the process to be handled “quickly, accurately and with maximum public input.” Originally, officials with the planning department and the Davidson County Election Commission said it might be very difficult to process the numbers in time for the May 19 filing deadline, much less the Aug. 4 election. But various officials, including Metro Council members, voiced concerns that failure to redraw the lines prior to the election date could prove very troubling regarding accurate voter representation. 

Craig Owensby, planning department spokesman, said a department employee is devoting full efforts to the redistricting effort, with several others assisting. Of note, the department is using District SOLV software, which interfaces with mapping and graphic software already in place, he said.

The final Census numbers will include race, ethnicity, gender and age figures, as well as the geographic blocks and tracts in which Davidson County residents live.

During a presentation to Metro Council members held earlier this week, Bernhardt said the planning department will follow eight basic guidelines in the redrawing of council districts: 1. roughly equal population in each of the 35 districts; 2. compliance with the Voting Rights Act to ensure fair minority representation; 3. districts as compact as possible with contiguous territory; 4. minimal change compared to existing district borders; 5. no splitting of satellite cities; 6. maintaining of neighborhood boundaries; 7. maximum practical use of natural boundaries; and 8. appropriate opportunity for public comment. 

Every 20 years, decennial census data arrives only months before Metro holds an August election, thus creating logistical and time challenges for the planning department to redraw district lines.

Of note, Census data arrived Feb. 16, 1971, a full four to five weeks earlier than it will arrive this year. That year, the planning commission approved the redrawn lines on March 10, with the Metro Council giving final approval, after three votes, on May 4.

In 1991, the Census data arrived March 19. The planning commission approved April 25, but the council later rejected, forcing a Sept. 5 referendum.

For this year, the planning department’s goal is to have the redrawn lines to the planning commission by April 8 at the latest, giving both the commission and the council time to finalize a new district map — likely via a fast-track — at least a few weeks before the May 19 qualifying deadline. This will provide prospective council candidates time to regroup should they find themselves living in districts that changed following the line updates.