I had the opportunity to attend the meeting of the Hamblen County Government Redistricting Committee yesterday (September 28, 2021). I posted a little about this on my personal FB page, but I figured that there’s a little more to tell than can fit in a FB post, so I’m writing a long form piece on what I saw.
First to set the scene. I got a call before noon the day of to let me know that this meeting was taking place. I hadn’t heard anywhere else that it would take place. I’m new to the area, so maybe there was some public notice about the meeting that I didn’t see. But it doesn’t seem like there was a great effort to let the public know this meeting was going on.
An assortment of names I recognize (and long time residents would know very well) were on the dais as committee members. They include:
- Bill Brittain (County Mayor)
- Jim Clawson (Register of Deeds, a position he has held since 1994)
- Jeff Gardner (Adminstrator of Elections)
- Jim Grigsby (School Board member)
- Tim Horner (County Commissioner, District 13)
- Kay Senter (City Council Member, at large)
- Ashley Singer (maybe an employee of Hamblen County government?)
The meeting took place in the Large Courtroom at the Hamblen County government building. The members of the committee were spread out where judge and other court personnel would sit if it were a trial. There were also 6 county commissioners in attendance. They sat in the Jury Box. I did not identify which commissioners were there, although I was told that they would have been the commissioners whose Districts were being altered by the proposed plan.
I was the only member of the public present. One other observer in the gallery was a member of the press. They had the Powerpoint presentation projected on screens on either side of the courtroom. I was given a print out of the slides after the meeting and told that an electronic version would be included in the materials for the next County Commission meeting.
The meeting lasted all of about 20 minutes. They elected officers. Jeff Gardner was named chairman, Kay Senter was named Vice Chair and the Secretary was Trish Bowman. I don’t know her, but I suspect she’s a government employee, a clerk for the County Commission or something like that.
They offered visitors the chance to address the committee. They handed out guidelines for public comment, which appear to be general County Commission guidelines, not something specific to this committee. I was the only visitor and I declined the opportunity to speak.
The rest of the meeting saw the Chairman run through the slides they had prepared. I’ll link to the slides at a later point, so, if you’re interested, you can search that out on my social media. I’ll provide a summary below, as best I can, of how they went about changing the districts.
There are 14 voting districts and this did not change. They used the 2020 census numbers to determine the current population of the districts as they were drawn after the 2010 census. The total population for the county from the 2020 census was 64,499. Here’s how they handled the redistricting. They got the median point by dividing the 64,499 by 14 (the number of districts). That came to a median point of 4,607 registered voters per district. They then looked at the number of registered voters for each district from the 2020 census and compared that number to the median number. Their guidance from the state was to make sure the newly drawn districts were within a range of deviation from the median number between -5% and +5%. About seven of the districts, as drawn a decade ago, were outside that range, so they went about adjusting district lines to get all districts within the range of deviation as prescribed by the state. The Chairman said the goal was to disrupt as few people as possible. I also noted that, on at least one occasion, they moved a neighborhood that was divided at the last redistricting back together into the same district.
My takeaways from the meeting:
- Lack of public notice is a problem for this meeting. My experience is that the public generally doesn’t show up at these things. And it’s not enough that Commissioners for the affected districts seem to have been in attendance. They should do better.
- The meeting was very short. Clearly there was a lot of work done behind the scenes. There was only one plan put together and it appears to have been done by the Administrator of Elections. Also, the election of the Chair, Vice Chair and Secretary appear to have been coordinated in advance. I question whether sunshine laws were observed.
- On the surface, there was nothing controversial about the changes to the districts. They moved things just enough to get all districts within the range they were given. But there was only one plan offered. And really no discussion of whether the districts should be redrawn to reflect minority population growth in the county.
I think I’ll probably be going to the next Commission meeting to talk at public forum on this issue, so look for more on this issue here and on my social media.