By Andrew Pantazi
The Tributary

Jacksonville City Council. [The Tributary]

The Jacksonville City Council voted 17-to-1 to approve a controversial redistricting plan that has earned the threat of a lawsuit amid criticism that it disenfranchises Black voters by packing them into a few districts.

The City Council prioritized making as few changes as possible to its current map and protecting incumbents in its redistricting plan. The approved plan splits 47 neighborhoods, and it draws a majority of the city’s Black residents into sprawling four districts.

The new districts will go into effect for the 2023 spring elections.

Only Councilman Rory Diamond voted against the plans. Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman left the meeting before the vote.

Councilman Aaron Bowman praised the process, which entrusted each district council member to determine how their own district would change, saying it highlighted “how we best work as a council.”

“That’s the beauty of this council when we can work together like that,” he said.

But that same process was criticized for months by residents who repeatedly used the phrase “the fox guarding the henhouse” to describe entrusting elected lawmakers choosing their own voters.

The City Council plan also draws Duval County School Board’s seven districts by merging two adjacent council districts into one school board district. Mayor Lenny Curry can now sign, veto or allow the plan to go into effect without his signature.

A spokeswoman for the mayor did not return a request for comment.

Diamond said he opposed the map because he believed it was wrong to try to preserve the status quo and protect incumbents. “In order to move Jacksonville forward, we’re going to have to let go a little bit of the status quo,” he said.

The maps led hundreds of citizens to attend public hearings, and a recent University of North Florida poll found that 89% of Jacksonville residents don’t trust City Council to handle redistricting fairly.

Rules Committee Chair Councilwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson said she gave her “word as a neighbor” that she would respond to the concerns by seeing if “adjustments can be made.”

But neither she nor any other council member proposed any changes in response to the uproar.

Priestly Jackson said her guiding principle in this round of redistricting, which saw a majority of Black residents continue to be placed in four of the city’s 14 districts, was “do no harm,” she said.

District maps can violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause if the line drawers made race a predominant factor in redistricting without a compelling reason.

It can be appropriate to consider race to protect a minority population’s ability to elect their preferred candidates, but experts say that doesn’t give City Council carte blanche to pack as many Black voters as possible into those districts.

The Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, the American Civil Liberties Union Northeast Florida Chapter, Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters and the Jacksonville NAACP have threatened to sue the city for racial gerrymandering.

A city attorney has said the city would "likely prevail" if the maps are challenged in court.

"It should be duly noted the public universally objected to this plan at every single public meeting," activist Ben Frazier said at a rally before the meeting. "… We feel the Jacksonville City Council had an opportunity to make a touchdown. Unfortunately, we're very concerned that the City Council has instead fumbled the ball and may have to be flagged for a penalty by a federal court."

Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition speaking before the Jacksonville City Council meeting. [The Tributary]

Priestly Jackson claimed those living in the four districts weren't the ones complaining about racial packing — even as one of the three public commenters at Tuesday's meeting came from one of those districts.

She claimed the criticism was driven by outsiders. She pointed to the lack of public comment at her member-to-member meetings, but she failed to note she had prohibited public comment at those meetings.

In fact, many of those who spoke at public hearings or who talked to the Tributary for past stories do live in the four districts.

Priestly Jackson also said she didn't know what Black percentage was necessary for the districts, but an academic conducted an extensive study that determined Black voters could elect their preferred candidate in a given district with an about 41% to 44% Black citizen voting-age population.

The four districts range from 57% to 68% Black voting-age population. Still, Priestly Jackson claimed unpacking the districts as advocates have requested would dilute the Black vote.

The academic was hired by the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, the American Civil Liberties Union Northeast Florida Chapter, Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters and the Jacksonville NAACP. The report was sent to Priestly Jackson and other council members.

Such an analysis is often a first step in filing voting-rights lawsuits.

City law requires all districts be drawn in “as logical and compact a geographical pattern as it is possible to achieve,” and the “districts must take into consideration other factors, particularly compactness and contiguity, so that the people of the City, and their varied economic, social and ethnic interests and objectives, are adequately represented in the Council.”

The council never assessed the districts’ compactness.

The audience gathered at the Jacksonville City Council meeting Tuesday when the council approved its redistricting plan. [The Tributary]

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Andrew Pantazi edits and reports for The Tributary. He previously worked as a reporter at The Florida Times-Union where he helped organize the newsroom's union with the NewsGuild-CWA. He is a Jacksonville...