Talk about last minute.
With a Valentine’s Day deadline just days away, DeKalb County politicians recently scrambled to piece together new districts for the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education.
Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Dunwoody, said he and other members of the DeKalb delegation are upset with the way county politicians have handled the situation.
“One thing we’re in unanimous agreement on is the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education dropped the ball on this,” Taylor said.
Every 10 years, governments must redraw political districts based on population data from the U.S. Census. Each election district must have roughly the same number of people, so districts are redrawn to account for shifts in population.
The process is a difficult one that often pits politicians against one another.
This year, the deadline for the House of Representatives to approve all local district maps was set for Feb. 14. The maps must be in on time so they may be sent to the Senate and then to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval.
Most cities, counties and school boards sent in their maps long ago. But both the DeKalb Board of Commissioners and Board of Education have had trouble agreeing on a new district map.
Typically, DeKalb’s elected officials would redraw their own districts and come to a consensus on a single map that would be submitted to the DeKalb delegation in the Legislature for approval.
“We haven’t done that. The Board of Education has not done that,” said County Commissioner Jeff Rader. “They’re scrambling to get something submitted.”
Rader said the process has been a very political one and hasn’t been completed properly “because of unfortunate divisions in DeKalb County.”
“This is not a very transparent process. The commission has not even attempted to vet and adopt a map,” Rader said. “Now legislators are being lobbied individually by commissioners.”
He recognizes that redrawing the district hastily creates problems. “When these issues are not broadly vetted and publicly discussed … the public doesn’t get to make those decisions,” Rader said.
One problem has been that the Legislature last year voted to cut the DeKalb school board from nine to seven members.
Nancy Jester, who represents much of north DeKalb on the Board of Education, said the school board has had trouble creating new districts because the Legislature didn’t give them direction on how to comply with the bill. She said it did not take into account that five of the nine sitting school board members have terms that don’t expire until 2014. It is illegal to reduce a term of office without holding a referendum for the public to vote.
“Because you can’t reduce those terms, you’re going to have some pretty arbitrary lines drawn,” Jester said.
On Feb. 6, the DeKalb delegation’s subcommittee for redistricting met to discuss the map for the Board of Education. They were unable to vote because only three members were present, not enough for a quorum.
An hour later, the subcommittee was scheduled to meet and approve a map for the Board of Commissioners. Only the committee’s chair, Rep. Simone Bell, D-Atlanta, was present. She apologized to the people gathered to watch the meeting, saying that no progress could be made without the other members of the subcommittee.
“I was expecting to vote this out of committee today. I only received contact from one person,” Bell said of the other committee members. “To some extent this whole process has been a little disappointing. Every elected official knew this was coming up.”
On Feb. 7, the subcommittees met again and voted on maps for the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education that will be sent to the DeKalb delegation for approval.
Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-DeKalb, presented the map of county commission districts that was ultimately approved by the subcommittee. The map the subcommittee agreed upon for the Board of Education calls for five districts, not seven as originally proposed, Jester said.
The task of redrawing the district lines for two governments in a matter of days is frustrating, Taylor said.
“Everybody wants to point fingers,” Taylor said. “But when you don’t participate in the process you have no one to blame but yourself.”