The Hattiesburg City Council voted at their regular meeting on Jan. 18 to adopt the Alternate 3 Redistricting Plan as submitted by the consulting group Bridge & Watson LLC. The council voted 4-0 with Ward 2 Councilwoman Deborah Delgado abstaining.
Council members said they had two primary goals for selecting a new plan: to draw the district lines so that each ward had an equal population and to achieve equitable distribution in the racial makeup of each ward.
In the newly adopted plan, the ward populations vary between 9,440 (Ward 5) and 10,038 (Ward 3). Populations in Ward 1 and Ward 3 decreased. Populations in Ward 2, Ward 4 and Ward 5, however, increased.
Ward 1 is composed of a 47% African-American population with 10% comprised of other racial groups. Ward 2 and Ward 5 have strong African-American majorities. Ward 3 has a strong white majority, and Ward 4 is composed of a nearly equal division between white and other races.
In order to reach their population density and racial distribution goals, the geographical lines of Ward 1 and Ward 3 shifted to add more land to Ward 2 and Ward 5. The geographical boundaries of Ward 4, however, stayed close to the 2010 districting lines.
Council members also considered voting populations, geographical locations, the conservation of neighborhood boundaries, the locations of the council members’ personal residences and community input.
Hattiesburg’s population increased by approximately 3,000 residents in the 2020 Census, with racial makeup (53% African-American, 43% white and 4% other races) remaining the relatively the same from 2012.
Citizens raised concerns about possible gerrymandering and racial discrimination during the redistricting planning period. Two Hattiesburg residents, Matt Lawrence and Roger McDowell, and the Community Coalition Group presented alternative plans to the city council that they believed alleviated these issues. In total, the council considered nine redistricting plans.
“I’m not ashamed of having stood up and spoken on a few occasions against social and racial injustices,” McDowell said. “But, I would be ashamed if I didn’t do it and relied on my white privilege not to speak up, and I can’t not do it today. . . . Acceptance of the redistricting plan without open and honest consideration of alternatives to the perpetuation of the gerrymandered system we’ve had for 35 years is wrong. It is wrong to put (council members’) personal interests ahead of the citizens of Hattiesburg by denying them an equal voice in their city government.”
A 10th plan was submitted less than an hour before the January 18 meeting. Due to its late submission, the city council voted 3-2 not to add the plan for consideration with council members Delgado and Nicholas Brown voting to add the plan.
“If this is in fact a community led plan, and it is ... we should allow citizens to have input, and even though the resources of the city do belong to the citizens, citizens do not have a choice in who it is (the city council) chooses to have as its consultant regarding these plans,” Delgado said. “As their elected representatives, I think we should consider what citizens present to us in an abundance of caution that we hear what the people who put us here have to say.”
Thanks to a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the City of Hattiesburg was able to adopt a redistricting plan without first obtaining federal approval from the U.S. Department of Justice for the first time since the 1960s. The requirement for redistricting pre-clearance was part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act meant to ensure racial equity in states like Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
In 2002 and 2012, the City of Hattiesburg successfully fought suits brought against their redistricting plans in federal court. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the redistricting plans in both incidents.
Council President Carter Carroll said that he was confident the change wouldn’t create any problems with implementing the new plan because it was done the same way the previous two times.
“I would just like to say that I appreciate all of the community involvement through this whole process,” said Ward 1 Councilman Jeffrey George. “It’s refreshing to see people engaged in what’s going on within their local government.”
The adopted redistricting plan is available for public viewing at https://bit.ly/3KrGxUs.