The Jacksonville City Council passed a new district map Friday after a contentious week that at one point saw the same map first fail when it came up for a vote.
The new map, which will affect City Council districts and Duval School Board districts, will go to U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Morales Howard to review. The plaintiffs have until Nov. 18 to object to the map and propose their own for review.
The new districts are still not compact, and they split many neighborhoods, but General Counsel Jason Teal and the city’s mapdrawer, Douglas Johnson, repeatedly told the council they didn’t need to worry about drawing compact districts. Teal said it was OK that districts were “funny looking,” as long as it was to protect an incumbent or for some other ostensibly race-neutral reason.
In addition to Judge Howard’s injunction striking down the previous districts for racial gerrymandering, the plaintiffs may take the city to trial over claims the districts violate a city charter requirement for “logical and compact” districts.
The old map saw 54% of the county’s Black residents in just four out of 14 districts. Under the new map, 51% of Black residents are in those districts.
The City Council didn’t begin weighing in on maps until Tuesday, three weeks after Howard struck down the city’s earlier map as a racial gerrymander.
At times this week, the city’s expert appeared to use “urban” to refer to Black suburbs and “rural” to describe white suburbs to explain why those neighborhoods didn’t belong together.
At one point, he described one proposed white-majority district as “rural” even though it was the second-densest district they had redrawn. Meanwhile, he described Sherwood Forest, a Black-majority neighborhood on the outskirts of town, as “urban” and not a good fit to be matched with “rural” communities like Baldwin.
Yet the approved District 12 combines Baldwin with white-majority neighborhoods with similar population densities to Sherwood Forest.
One public commenter argued Johnson’s use of “urban” and “rural” wasn’t fair. Sherwood Forest, like the white neighborhoods it was joined with on the Westside in the plaintiff’s proposed plan, was suburban, the commenter argued.
On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, a redistricting committee advanced a map proposal that had earned objections from councilmembers not on the committee. The first proposal brought up for a vote Friday couldn’t even earn a majority of the City Council members’ support for consideration, let alone the 13 votes needed to pass it.
A later proposal came just shy of 13 votes, with 12 voting for it and four voting against it. Councilwoman Randy DeFoor wanted to see Riverside, Avondale and Ortega kept together in one district, but after working with the city’s mapdrawer and talking to Property Appraiser Jerry Holland, she agreed to reconsider the legislation. The final vote was 16 to 1.
When asked if she thinks the court will approve the city’s map, she said, “boy, I hope not. If I can get Riverside and Avondale back in my district [from an alternative map], I’d prefer that.”
Council President Terrance Freeman praised the work of the council to meet the court’s deadline, saying, “We finally made it to a place where we unanimously voted — all but one — to give the judge a constitutional and legal map.”
Meanwhile, the city is still fighting to restore the earlier districts that Howard struck down, asking the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to stop Howard’s order. The city has asked the appellate court to block the order by next Tuesday.
Brenda Priestly Jackson, who voted against the map in the final vote, had criticized the council, saying the city’s map didn’t respond to what plaintiffs said in their complaint or what the court wanted in its order.
The court found that packing Black voters into four districts had reduced their influence in the city as a whole, ensuring three surrounding districts were much whiter than they would be otherwise.
“I think we did a disservice,” Priestly Jackson said, by not listening to the community’s concerns.
Teal said that candidates wouldn’t need to worry about the city’s requirement that candidates live in their district for about six months before an election, saying the court could waive that requirement. Later, he told The Tributary that as the general counsel he has the authority to issue his own binding opinion waiving the residency requirement if Howard doesn’t.
Councilman Reggie Gaffney said Teal’s assurance was a major factor in why he voted for the map. His son is on the ballot next Tuesday in a special election to replace him, but Reggie Gaffney Jr. will need to move out of his dad’s house to stay in the district for the March and May elections.
Until Teal’s assurance, Gaffney had worried about making sure his son, who lives with him north of the Trout River, would get a district that stretches into downtown. Now his son can move there before the March election without having to worry about a deadline that would’ve required he had lived there since July.
Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman, whose previous comments about not being willing to have her old district go below 68% Black were critical in the injunction, said this time around she wanted a district that more closely resembled the one that was struck down by the federal court. She ended up with one that combined parts of her old district with parts of the old District 7, going from the area around the Ribault River north past the Trout River. It’s now 65% Black.
Councilman Al Ferraro also managed to keep San Mateo in his district, something that dominated some of the conversations this week. Each of the four initial proposals had put San Mateo into a different district.
Judge Howard’s order also honed in on an earlier discussion about San Mateo last year. At that time, Ferraro and Gaffney went block by block along their border and discussed racial demographics as they decided which blocks should transfer from Ferraro to Gaffney. San Mateo, which has a larger white population, stayed with Ferraro.
This time around, neighbors discussed their concerns as a community, and they decried what they saw as political corruption intended to push Mike Gay, a San Mateo resident, out of the district so that he couldn’t run for election next spring.
Johnson also said he used the city’s planning districts to guide boundaries, but in fact, several districts unnecessarily split those, too.
While lawyers had told the council they could consider partisan makeup in their decision-making, the council members rarely openly did so.
City Council members said that race was not a factor this time, even as some conversations centered around race, discussing how many districts would still have a Black-majority population or whether the districts had sufficient demographics to comply with the Voting Rights Act if challenged.
The city never produced an analysis that explained how they determined the districts would comply with the Voting Rights Act. Howard’s order required
Instead, the council members said they had prioritized protecting both incumbents and candidates, like Gaffney’s son.
They also prioritized keeping districts similar to the ones struck down. Gaffney wanted his district to continue to represent downtown. Pittman wanted her district to continue to stretch north of the Trout River. Councilman Randy White objected to moving his district between I-295 and the First Coast Expressway.
The city has until Nov. 8 to file the new maps with the court, and then the city will have three days to give the court its data, analyses, transcripts and other documents connected with the redistricting.
The plaintiffs then have until Nov. 18 to object to the map and submit alternative plans. The city will have 10 days after that to reply. The Duval Supervisor of Elections office has said it needs a final map by Dec. 16.