SALISBURY – Two weeks past the deadline to complete election redistricting, the Salisbury City Council this week sat down to take into consideration revised maps that addressed different parties’ concerns and took a vote to move forward with a final decision.
Election redistricting is a result of the recently taken Census. Salisbury’s population has grown to 30,607 in the last 10 years and minorities make up 44 percent of the city’s population.
The current election system is divided into two districts from which two council members are elected plus three at-large members, totaling a five-member council.
This week Council President Terry Cohen submitted that the two maps presented on Monday evening were a result of the April 26 work session, where Frank McKenzie of Planning and Zoning revised the maps to avoid splits in some neighborhoods and to show the option realized for merging the two now-adjacent minority-majority districts into one.
Cohen explained that one map shows the addition of a third, single-member district that is minority-majority, and because “District 3" is adjacent to the currently revised District 1 that is minority-majority, it afforded a new opportunity to enlarge District 1 to become a multi-member district like District 2. The other map displays the new option of a larger minority-majority district with two seats.
“Election redistricting we discovered is a very complicated process and a lot of different factors have to be considered,” she said.
Back in November, Mayor Jim Ireton proposed three options of election redistricting. Out of the choices Ireton was in favor of dividing the city into five election districts, including two minority-majority districts, and add two at-large members, creating a seven-member council.
Cohen said there was not a consensus among the council to support a seven member council and decided to move forward with the current five.
The council also took into consideration concerns expressed by letter received in April, written by Deborah Jeon of the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Christopher Brown of the law firm Brown, Goldstein and Levy, and the Wicomico County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The letter pointed out that Salisbury’s minority population has risen to equal 48.2 percent of the total population. As such, election districts need to be crafted in a way that accurately reflects that change; two of the proposals submitted by the Maryland ACLU call for five voting districts while the third aims for seven districts.
“We have done a lot of outreach on the subject matter to an extent, we made a good faith effort, and our council consensus was at the work session was two possibilities,” Cohen said. “One would be three districts with two minority-majority districts, and because those districts were adjacent the other opportunity that didn’t exist before was to have a multi-member District 1 with two seats, and a multi-member District 2 with three seats.”
Ireton became frustrated with the proposed maps saying they were similar to those he had already proposed with minor tweaks.
“Either of these two plans represented tonight makes equal the number of votes the residents in the minority district have to the number of votes the people in the majority district have …,” he said. “This should have been about what we could have been, not what we had to be or who we had to protect.”
Ireton pointed out that the redistricting would have to be done by charter amendment, which would eliminate the mayor’s right to veto.
“I don’t understand why we didn’t reach for our better angels in a higher ground in a higher place,” he said. “If we had five districts with two at large, that would have solved these problems.”
Wicomico County branch NAACP President Mary Ashanti said the organization is against two at large as well as the two maps offered that night.
“We do agree with the five single member districts,” she said. “We think that it is progressive, it is not disruptive … we will not be taken back, the court system is there to protect everyone, and we will use it as necessary.”
Cohen argued that by law if the number of districts or the number of seats within a district is changed then a charter amendment is required.
“What we wanted to do here is the fairness in establishing increased opportunity for a minority population, specifically our African American population, and we have achieved that with these plans,” she said. “So nobody is going back by saying we are going to give up a seat in District 2 and give it to District 1 that is not going back. That is a new opportunity.”
Council Vice President Deborah Campbell stepped up to the plate and offered a motion to direct the city attorney to draft a charter amendment, as required by law, to revise the city election districts and eliminate staggered election terms with the following components.
The City Council voted 3-2 to approve the motion to move forward. Council members Campbell, Cohen and Tim Spies were in favor. Laura Mitchell and Shanie Shields were in opposition.
The redistricting maps are available on the city government’s website, www.ci.salisbury.md.us.