The Jacksonville City Council met Wednesday and will meet again on Thursday. [The Tributary]

Even as the city faces a lawsuit alleging it illegally passed non-compact districts, Jacksonville’s top lawyer told City Council members they didn’t need to worry about whether their new districts were oddly shaped or not.

“It’s OK to have funny-looking districts,” Jacksonville General Counsel Jason Teal said. “It’s OK that they look like they are oddly shaped.”

The city’s charter — Jacksonville’s local version of a constitution — requires “that all districts and at-large residence areas are as nearly equal in population and are arranged in a logical and compact geographic pattern to the extent possible.”

U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard struck down the city’s earlier map as a racial gerrymander, saying the council districts and the county’s School Board districts had segregated voters by race, violating the U.S. Constitution.

The city must pass new maps by Nov. 8, she ruled. The City Council’s redistricting committee will meet again Thursday at 12 p.m. and at 5 p.m. before bringing a final map to the full Council on Friday at 9 a.m. for a vote.

Howard hasn’t yet ruled on a separate part of the lawsuit alleging the district maps also violated the city charter’s requirement for “logical and compact” districts, but throughout her order, she called the city’s districts “elongated”, “sprawling”, “odd”, “illogical” and “bizarre”.

“Both the City Charter and the City Code require that voting districts be drawn as compact and contiguous as possible,” she wrote. “But, no matter how many ways one might try to describe the shape of Districts 7-10, and 14, the word compact would not apply, elongated, or sprawling, perhaps—but certainly not ‘compact.'”

Howard has not yet set a trial date to handle the full lawsuit, including claims that the City Council violated its charter requirement to draw compact districts.

Howard also rejected the city’s recent motion to stay her decision. On Wednesday, the city filed a new motion asking the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to halt her order. The appellate court said the plaintiffs must respond by Friday.

Up until now, City Council President Terrance Freeman has expressed complete confidence the council will approve a new map on Friday, but Wednesday — the same day the city asked an appellate court to stop the court order because the timeline was too onerous — Freeman suggested for the first time the committee may not complete the task.

So far, the redistricting committee has narrowed its focus to two maps that are less compact but more favorable for Republicans than a proposal submitted by the plaintiffs.

Howard had previously criticized an expert hired by the city whose work, she said, “ignores the requirements of the City Charter and the City Code that the districts be as compact and contiguous as possible.”

That ignorance continued Wednesday. Teal and another city expert, Douglas Johnson, said they didn’t need to worry about drawing compact districts. Neither brought up the fact the local charter requires compact districts or that Howard had repeatedly pointed to that requirement.

“What you can’t do is have them be oddly shaped because you’re grabbing a racial majority,” Teal said. “You can’t do it for racial reasons in order to pack a district with all these tendrils going out to grab people of the persuasion you’re going after.”

He continued, “So in and of itself, it’s OK to have weird-shaped districts. Just because it looks a little weird doesn’t mean it’s improper or unconstitutional. We can say it looks weird because we’re keeping a neighborhood together, or Republicans versus Democrats, or keeping an incumbent in their district. That’s perfectly OK.”

Teal said they didn’t need to worry about how compact a district is.

In response to an outcry from residents, the redistricting committee did ask its expert to explore keeping Riverside, Avondale and Murray Hill in one district.

City Councilwoman Randy DeFoor had asked the city’s mapdrawer if he had looked at Jacksonville’s neighborhoods map but he and the city’s planning director claimed none existed — something the city has also claimed in court filings.

DeFoor, who is a real-estate lawyer, said she knew that to be untrue, and after the Tributary provided her with a copy of a neighborhood map made by the city, DeFoor told the city’s lawyers they had an obligation to correct the court record.

Teal also reiterated that the city would not attempt to draw districts that comply with the Voting Rights Act. He said Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act was “a tool that local governments can use to make the case for having a race-based or minority district. The problem with it in this particular case is that requires — you have to go through these math exercises if you will, in order to demonstrate there’s a need for separate race-based districts. We just don’t have the time to do that.”

Later, Councilman Rory Diamond, one of the committee’s vice chairs, said that because the city was sued for violating the 14th Amendment, not the Voting Rights Act, “our job is to write a constitutional map. That’s our sole job. And as far as I can tell, we are absolutely doing that.”

For nearly a year, the plaintiffs had offered to share the data and code their experts used to analyze the city’s racially polarized voting, but the city has rejected that offer.

The Tributary has been covering local redistricting for more than a year. Here is a sample of our past coverage:

In a footnote in Howard’s most recent order, she suggested that she would analyze the proposed maps’ compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

If she determines the city’s proposed plan violates the Voting Rights Act, she may require the city to draw certain districts that protect Black voters’ ability to elect their preferred candidates without packing in Black voters beyond what’s necessary.

Although the city’s expert has looked at the racial demographics of his proposed maps, he didn’t share the specific data with the redistricting committee. Instead, even though the committee didn’t ask for political data, Johnson shared voter registration information.

While some citizens have submitted map proposal to the committee, the committee has not discussed or reviewed those either. Teal said he and the redistricting expert need to review proposed maps’ “demographics”, including the “political demographics”. Teal never explained why a lawyer would need to review the political demographics of the districts before being able to share those districts with the committee.

Johnson said citizens need to send him shapefiles if they want the committee to review the proposals. But after he said that, he admitted one citizen did send a shapefile yet he still didn’t share the map with the committee.

Some citizens, including former Republican City Councilman John Draper, accused the city of using party registration as a proxy for race. Draper, who was involved in the 1991 redistricting that was central to the legal case, said the city racially gerrymandered back then and has continued to do so ever since.

“Thirty years ago, we put this basic plan together, and we called it minority access districts. Now that’s illegal. We have to call them Democrat-access districts if that’s what we really want. I’m sure some of you like that idea. But the problem with that is that you, by creating three Democrat-access districts, you greatly reduce the effective service of Democrats in the surrounding districts. So you dilute the the input of Democrats.”

He continued, “We don’t need that in Jacksonville. The issues are not partisan issues.”

Freeman has refused to answer questions about whether the committee intends to use partisanship in its redistricting, saying that is a legal question that needs to be answered by the city’s lawyers. The city’s top lawyer said the committee may consider partisanship, but the committee is not required to do so.

Freeman and the other council members have largely avoided talking about partisanship during the committee meetings. Instead, Freeman did discuss race, saying at one point it was “troubling to me” that under all four proposed plans there would be “three minority-access seats” compared to four in the current map.

That phrasing was misleading, and even the city’s expert said he would not weigh in on whether the proposed plans would have four “minority-access districts” since he said there was “a lot of debate” about what Black population percentage in Jacksonville was necessary for a minority-access district.

Under the plaintiffs’ proposed map, there would be four Black-majority districts, though one would fall just under 50% when using voting-age population instead of total population.

Under the committee’s preferred Maroon map, there are three Black-majority districts and a fourth that is 49% Black. The fourth district falls to 45% Black when using voting-age population.

However, the Black share of a district is not what’s most relevant to the Voting Rights Act. Courts have said the law can protect districts that allow Black voters the ability to elect their preferred candidates, even if that percentage is less than 50%.

For example, over the last decade, courts ordered a Senate district in Jacksonville that was 41% Black voting-age population and a congressional district that was 44% Black voting-age population.

According to the plaintiffs, four districts in their map would regularly allow Black voters the ability to elect their preferred candidates, while increasing the likelihood Black voters could also elect their preferred candidates in a fifth more competitive district. The plaintiffs’ analysis said that the candidate preferred by Black voters won 25 out of 25 elections in three districts, 24 out of 25 elections in one district and 19 out of 25 in another.

Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman told the Tributary the reduction in the Black population in one of the districts was a significant factor for her.

“Do the math,” she said. “You can count from four to three districts. It’s a real concern for me.”

Earlier, Councilman Diamond, who is one of the vice chairs of the redistricting committee, similarly expressed concern to The Tributary that if the committee approved the plaintiffs’ proposed map “African-American Democratic representation on the council would go down and cause a new set of plaintiffs to file suit.”

In contrast, he told the committee, “Even if we did the VRA analysis, I think the Maroon map would pass just fine. And so I feel very comfortable supporting it going forward.”

The committee also asked Johnson, the mapdrawer, to look at making some changes to Districts 8 and 9. Johnson agreed to do that, though he explained that it was OK that District 9 looks odd and is “stretched out”.

In an interview, Councilwoman Pittman said she wanted District 8 to look more like it did in the map that the federal court struck down, so she asked Johnson to push her district north of the Trout River. She said she’ll need to review data in whatever version of District 8 Johnson draws before passing judgment.

She said the map passed 10 years ago, when some on the City Council used racial quotas, put the current council at “a disadvantage. We are here because we started out with something that shouldn’t have been. At this point, we have an opportunity to get it right.”

Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman. [The Tributary]

How to draw your own districts

Anyone who wants to try their hand at drawing their own districts and submitting them to City Council can follow these instructions:

Sign up for an account at Dave’s Redistricting App.

Click on this link. Click the paintbrush next to the “View Only” text. Click “Yes” to make an editable copy of the map.

Click on the new map and click edit. You can then begin drawing a map that will keep the seven districts south and east of the St. Johns River frozen.

Once you’ve finished, click the export button near the top-right of your screen and select “District Shapes (as Shapefile, .zip)”. Send the zipped folder to the redistricting committee at 2022redistricting@coj.net. You can also send us a copy at maps@jaxtrib.org so we can feature your submitted maps in a future newsletter.

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 and his wife,...