By CARL SMITH
The city of Starkville will soon look for an outside organization to help and assist officials craft new ward boundaries to ensure near-equal populations, Mayor Parker Wiseman said.
Within the next month, Wiseman said, the city will publish a request for qualifications, beginning its search for an outside redistricting consultant.
“We’re looking for a group or organization with redistricting experience that would be applicable to a city the size of Starkville,” Wiseman said. “There are a lot of ways (wards) could be divided. Consultants that work regularly in this field are well versed at both working with governing boards and working with Department of Justice mandates to get plans completed that satisfy all of our city stakeholders.”
A timeline for hiring an outside consultant or how much it would cost is not available at this time because, Wiseman said, this is only the beginning of the search.
“We really won’t know a price until we get qualifications in, and we probably won’t have a firm idea until we have discussions with the parties that submit and allow the board to discuss the issue,” he said.
The city held a redistricting work session late October, picking up the issue again after it was tabled during the summer. Four model redistricting maps were developed by the city’s GIS coordinator, Andrew Nagel, and presented to aldermen by Chief Administrative Officer Lynn Spruill as a starting point for discussion. The sample maps attempted to keep traditional neighborhoods together and current aldermen in their respective wards.
According to population figures compiled by the city, Wards 1 and 3 are both currently above the 3,413-resident mark which provides a close balance between the city’s seven wards.
During the work session, Spruill told the board Ward 1 was overpopulated by about 1,600 people, while Ward 3 was over the average by about 1,300 residents. No one ward would have to gain over 1,000 extra residents to ensure a balance.
Consultants, Wiseman said, will discard the city’s model maps and develop their own.
“The mandate from the DOJ says all seven wards will have to be within 10 percent of each other in terms of population. That was the staff’s first draft at showing how district lines could be shifted,” Wiseman said. “We have GIS capabilities on our staff, but we don’t have people who have dealt with redistricting before. That’s where having a consultant will help us because it’s a very complex process.”
During the October work session, Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins took exception to the city’s redistricting process and said the model maps presented real issues with the voting rights act and “serious gerrymandering throughout the city.”
“If we’re not careful, we’ll end up in federal court. It is imperative we do not tinker with Wards 5, 6 and 7. (Wards) 6 and 7 need to remain intact as is,” Perkins said in October.
On Friday, Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn said he felt like his ward needs to stay the way it is.
“Any changes to (Ward 7) will hinder me, spread me too far or draw something away from my ward,” he said. “I feel like if my ward is government approved, then it doesn’t need to be changed.”
Ward 3 Alderman Eric Parker says he doesn’t believe the city needs to go outside of its own means to remap the city because the process appears pretty simple.
“Honestly, it’s simple math,” he said. “Wards 1 and 3 have to give up population, while Wards 2,4 5, 6 and 7 have to pick up population. That’s the federal mandate.”
Once a final redistricting plan is chosen by aldermen, Wiseman said it will have to be cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice. Two public hearings will also follow after the board agrees on new boundaries.