By Andrew Pantazi
The Tributary

The Jacksonville City Council will vote tonight at 5 p.m. on its controversial redistricting plan, despite frequent criticism that the map 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. That means the plan still splits 47 neighborhoods, and it still packs a majority of Black residents into four districts.

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

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

Last decade, courts approved congressional, senate and House districts in Duval that maintained Black voters’ ability to elect even when the districts weren’t majority Black. Yet four City Council districts were drawn so that their Black populations range from 60 percent Black to 70 percent Black, far higher than necessary, according to experts.

If the City Council wants to make further changes to the redistricting plan, it must send the bill back to the Rules Committee to host another public hearing before Sunday, according to a city attorney’s memo.

The City Council plan also draws Duval County School Board districts by merging two adjacent council districts into one school board district.

If the plan passes tonight, they will go to Mayor Lenny Curry. He can sign, veto or allow the plan to go into effect without his signature.

The maps led hundreds of citizens to attend public hearings, and they have also drawn threats of a lawsuit from local activists. City attorney Paige Johnston has said the city would “likely prevail” if someone sued over the maps.

A recent University of North Florida poll found that 89% of Jacksonville residents don’t trust City Council to handle redistricting fairly.

On Monday night, the Duval County Democratic Executive Committee passed a resolution condemning the maps, and the county party urged people to come to the City Council meeting to speak against the plan.

“The local redistricting process and proposed city council maps reflect an unfair and gerrymandered process that we cannot endorse,” the party said in a statement. “The current maps further cement incumbents while sacrificing accurate representation of the Jacksonville community, dilute the Black vote by over-packing certain districts, and artificially inflate the Republican Party’s position.”

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.

Packing in Black voters into a handful of districts reduces Black residents’ political power so that most City Council seats have negligible Black populations.

Last week, Rules Chair Councilwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson said she was “surprised and shocked” when issues of racial packing came up in August and September, after the release of census data and the first map proposals were drawn.

In 2019, when she ran for office, she criticized the shape of the districts in an interview with The Florida Times-Union, saying, “We can’t have these districts snip all around.”

In January and February, the Rules Committee held four public hearings at high schools across the city. Priestly Jackson said these would not merely be a “therapeutic exercise,” but an actual way to incorporate input and answer all questions raised.

Hundreds of residents showed up, all opposing the plan.

At the first hearing, she said, “I want to give you my word as a neighbor and pretty much a lifetime resident of Jacksonville that we will come back and … see if those adjustments can be made.”

That never happened.

Priestly Jackson didn’t propose any changes, didn’t answer questions, and claimed on Twitter that “our D-10 neighbors didn’t complain, neither did neighbors in districts 7, 8 & 9.”

Yet many of the residents who spoke against the maps said they lived in those districts.

She questioned Duval Democratic Party Chair Daniel Henry, asking why he didn't attend redistricting meetings in February of last year, long before census data was released and before the committee had begun drawing new maps.

She criticized state Rep. Angie Nixon, a fellow Democrat, saying, "It's particularly disconcerting that you raise this issue now after the legislative session has ended & the local redistricting process is nearing conclusion after more than 14 months of work."

She also objected to the Tributary, telling this reporter on Twitter, "You are a dishonest journo and lack integrity & regularly distort others comments to support your personal goal of selling your personal journal. You manufactured this issue to sell your publication…I don't read it or trust it anymore."

During redistricting over the late summer and into the fall, the City Council mostly divided into two cohorts that met separately. Council members from the south and east of the river (where most of Jacksonville's white residents live) redistricted in their own meetings, while council members from the north and west of the river (where most of Jacksonville's Black residents live) redistricted in their own meetings, led by Priestly Jackson.

Most council members have remained largely silent about redistricting ever since a special redistricting committee approved maps months ago.

So far, only Councilman Rory Diamond, of the Beaches, has voted against the maps, saying the City Council should've started from scratch instead of trying to preserve the status quo maps.

After last week's Rules Committee meeting, Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition said, "The old plan is unfair and illegal because African Americans are packed into city council districts seven, eight, nine, and 10. That's unfair because it dilutes black voting strength in all the other city council districts." 

He added, "It should be duly noted that the public universally objected to this plan in every single public meeting."

The Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, the American Civil Liberties Union Northeast Florida Chapter, Harriet Tubman Freedom Fighters and the Jacksonville NAACP commissioned an academic study and threatened to sue the city if it didn't change the redistricting plans.

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.

Priestly Jackson said she is open to exploring structural changes to how the city handles redistricting. She didn't say what changes those may be.

Some Florida municipalities hand redistricting to independent commissions. The Legislature's Fair Districts standards bar it from considering incumbency or political benefit.

This is Changing Florida, a Tributary newsletter keeping you up to date on redistricting, demographics and the fight for political power in the Sunshine State.

To make sure you don't miss out on an issue, click here to subscribe now and play a part in ensuring fair districts for all of Florida. Click here to read our archives.

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If you have questions about redistricting or the Census, you can send them to us by clicking here.

On The Calendar

The Jacksonville City Council will meet tonight at 5 p.m. at City Hall.

What You Need To Know

The Tributary has put together a primer on redistricting ahead of Thursday's final public hearing to help residents better understand the issues.

The ACLU of Florida also put together a public comment toolkit for Jacksonville redistricting.

Some local Democratic-leaning organizations also put together an extensive guide explaining the background of Jacksonville redistricting and suggested recommendations.

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...