Six of the city’s challenged districts that a federal court ruled were racially gerrymandered. The Jacksonville City Council said these districts were “logical” and “compact”, but a federal court disagreed. [Plaintiff’s lawsuit exhibit]

After a year’s worth of losses in federal court about its district maps, the Jacksonville City Council approved a settlement with civil-rights activists Tuesday night. A federal judge will now consider whether to accept the settlement.

The settlement would give $100,000 in attorney’s fees to the plaintiffs, who include the Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP, the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville, the ACLU of Florida Northeast Chapter and Florida Rising, along with 10 Jacksonville voters. The settlement also requires the city to continue using City Council district and Duval County School Board district maps drawn by the plaintiffs for the next decade.

The settlement passed by a vote of 15 to 3, with Councilmembers Leanna Cumber, Brenda Priestly Jackson and Reggie Gaffney Jr. voting against it.

If U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard accepts the settlement, it will close a redistricting process where the Jacksonville City Council, and its lawyers, have repeatedly rejected warnings and criticism from experts, activists and citizens.

“From henceforth and forever more, let this City Council always remember never again to ignore the voice of the people,” said Ben Frazier, one of the plaintiffs and the president of the Northside Coalition, in a text message.

The redistricting affair has revealed the extent to which some elected officials will go to project confidence in themselves, even after being repeatedly told they’re breaking the law.

More than a year ago, The Tributary revealed the efforts City Council members went to in order to pack Black voters into just four of the council’s 14 districts, but councilmembers told the Tributary they were confident everything they had done was legal.

After that reporting, a University of North Florida/The Tributary poll found 89% of residents didn’t trust the City Council to fairly draw its own districts.

The City Council then ignored experts and civil-rights groups who warned the city was violating the U.S. Constitution. Then hundreds of activists spoke out at City Council meetings against the proposed redistricting.

But the City Council’s leadership said they were confident that they were right and the activists were wrong.

A city lawyer echoed that confidence, telling the council before its final redistricting vote in March 2022, “if we’re sued, then we will defend it and likely prevail.”

After plaintiffs filed suit last May, Councilman Sam Newby, who served as council president during the initial redistricting, said he was “100 percent confident” the court would uphold the districts. His successor, Council President Terrance Freeman, had said he had “the utmost confidence in the work my colleagues did during the redistricting process.” Redistricting Chairman Aaron Bowman said he couldn’t “see a scenario where it [the council’s map] gets overridden.”

Even after Judge Howard ruled the city had segregated voters based on race, council members said they were confident they would win on appeal.

They didn’t.

Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition of Jacksonville talks at a February 2022 redistricting public hearing at William M. Raines High School. [Amanda Rosenblatt / The Tributary]

Howard gave the city a second chance at drawing the maps, but she found that the city failed to fix the racial gerrymandering and instead ordered the city to use a map drawn by the plaintiffs. The city also appealed that ruling and lost once again.

In all, the city would lose in front of Howard three times and twice more in front of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Howard also confirmed the Tributary’s previous reporting that the city had been racially gerrymandering its districts for decades, partly based on misinformation about federal voting laws.

In past redistricting cycles, including in 2011, council members mistakenly believed they needed to draw certain districts to be at least 60% Black. That misperception, which began in the 1980s and 1990s and was called “misinformation” by the U.S. Department of Justice, continued influencing how council members wanted to draw districts last year.

Under the city’s proposed map, four districts held 54.5% of the county’s Black residents, with the Black populations in those districts ranging from 61% to 70% Black. Under the new court-ordered map, those districts hold 50.6% of the county’s Black residents, and the populations range from 41% to 85% Black.

Council members had claimed in court they were trying to protect incumbents and certain political candidates, not to pack Black voters into certain districts, but Howard rejected that claim.

Last week, the Florida Legislature approved a new bill banning local governments from drawing districts intended to protect incumbents based on their residential address. The bill’s author specifically cited Jacksonville’s failed redistricting.

A courtroom sketch of U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard in the Jacksonville City Council redistricting case. [Steve Bridges]

Even now, after losing five times in court, council members said they were confident they would win if they continued fighting the ruling. Some said they only accepted the settlement out of respect for candidates who are now running for and being elected to the new districts.

Last week, after Councilman Michael Boylan asked the Office of General Counsel to draft a memo about lessons learned from the redistricting case, Councilman Danny Becton objected, saying he was “triggered” by the indication the council could’ve done a better job during redistricting.

“This is a situation where we had a judge legislate from the bench,” Becton said at a Rules Committee meeting last week about Judge Howard, who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush. “… Those maps were not unconstitutional. It was just a matter of opinion of a judge’s map versus this body’s map.”

Howard, he said, “would have lost on appeal,” and, he added, future City Councils “have nothing to learn” from the city’s failed redistricting effort.

Newby and Councilman Nick Howland similarly said they begrudgingly approved of the settlement during a committee meeting but would’ve preferred to continue fighting the court ruling.

General Counsel Jason Teal sets up proposed maps at a redistricting meeting after a federal court ordered the Jacksonville City Council to redraw its district maps.
General Counsel Jason Teal sets up proposed maps at a redistricting meeting after a federal court ordered the Jacksonville City Council to redraw its district maps. [Andrew Pantazi/The Tributary]

General Counsel Jason Teal also told council members that the court actually “found that the council, even in adopting that initial map that the plaintiffs challenged, was not acting in bad faith.”

But Howard never ruled on whether the City Council had acted in good faith because no one accused the council of acting in bad faith. Regardless of intent, Howard found the council had racially gerrymandered the district seats.

Still, Teal told the council, “Nowhere in these settlement documents does it reflect that anything that this council did in either the original redistricting or in the second effort last November was problematic in any way.”

Frazier, the activist who sued the city, said that the “struggle doesn’t stop here: we must ensure that all future maps also provide fair representation to Black residents so we can continue advocating for our communities in a City Council that’s willing to listen to us.”

Court-ordered map.

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...