Sussex County residents have until noon on Friday, Oct. 28, to enter their comments on the county’s proposed redistricting plan, due to a typographical error in the county council’s meeting agenda heading into their Oct. 25 meeting and hearing on the subject. The public comment period for the plan was set to end with the hearing at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, but it has been extended until noon Friday, to make sure those who thought the hearing was that evening can still comment.
County Attorney Everett Moore reported on the redistricting plan during Tuesday’s hearing, noting that the redistricting was required due to population shifts reported in the 2010 Census. With 197,145 residents, according to the 2010 survey, each of the county’s five councilmanic districts was required to be within 5 percent above or below 39,429 residents – no fewer than 37,458 and no more than 41,401.
With those bounds established, two of the county’s five existing districts – District 1, currently represented by Council President Michael Vincent, and District 3, currently represented by Councilwoman Joan Deaver – were outside of the acceptable range of population. District 1 was below the minimum, requiring that its geographic boundaries be expanded, while District 3 was above the maximum, requiring the district to contract geographically.
Due to the fact that District 1 and District 3 are not adjacent, a third district also needed to be adjusted, to allow for the other two to meet the requirements for population. That brought District 2, currently represented by Councilman Sam Wilson, into the mix. Under the proposed redistricting, Bridgeville was shifted from District 2, into District 1, which now contains an area consisting wholly of Western Sussex, including Laurel, Seaford and Bridgeville, with all of its communities west of Route 113.
District 2, as a result, had to move eastward, shifting its center east of Route 113, where most of the county’s population growth took place between 2000 and 2010. It would now include incorporated areas south of Milford and become the first of what would be four county councilmanic districts with more than 50 percent of their populations living east of Route 113, at 56 percent in the case of District 2.
District 3, with its population increase, had to get smaller and move to the north, in the Milford area. Those on the western edge of the prior boundaries were shifted to District 2. The resulting District 3 has 100 percent of its population living east of Route 113 – the second of four districts with more than 50 percent east of Route 113.
District 4, represented currently by Councilman George Cole, remained within the prescribed deviation in population figures, and thus required no changes. It, too, has 100 percent of its population east of Route 113 – the second of two such districts and third of four with at least 50 percent of their population east of Route 113.
District 5, currently represented by Councilman Vance Phillips, also remained within the mandated deviation, and also saw no major changes, though some slight changes were mandated by new state House and Senate voting district lines, to avoid areas where small areas were isolated from like voting districts between the two sets of officials. District 4 is the fourth of the four districts with more than 50 percent of its population living east of Route 113, at 54 percent.
Moore, who oversaw the development of the district maps and related ordinances along with consultant Dick Carter – who Moore pointed out was of the opposite political persuasion from himself and had experience working on redistricting for the state Senate and House, as well as the county council – emphasized that the process had been impartial and balanced.
“We wanted to change things as little as possible, to not undo what the voters have done and to keep together communities of interest,” Moore said, in addition to avoiding placing any two sitting council members in the same council district. He said there had also been demographics considerations and that they had looked for populations that would be skewed by the proposed changes. “There weren’t any,” he said, also reporting that each of the five districts now has “a slight edge” toward Democratic voters in terms of their population.
The redistricting is also the first time in history that four of the five council districts have a majority of their residents living east of Route 113, reflecting the continued growth of the population along the coast.
“We have three council members representing areas along the coast,” he noted, referring to Districts 3, 4 and 5. District 3 also now represents areas along the Delaware Bay coastline, and no municipalities were divided, though some areas near municipal limits are separated from the district of those municipalities, such as in the case of Districts 1 and 5, where titular Laurel residents Vincent and Phillips represent separate districts.
LWV says county goals for process were flawed
While Moore touted the balanced and impartial process that he said had led to the recommended district maps, as well as the new feature of early public input, the League of Women Voters of Sussex County largely expressed disappointment in the resulting process and districts.
Rehoboth Beach resident Jo Clingy, representing the LWV, commended the county for allowing for the public input so early in the process for the first time in history, calling it a significant step in the right direction.
“But we must express our disappointment in the missed opportunity to reflect communities of interest in this process that only occurs every 10 years,” she said. Noting that there are an infinite number of ways to draw the district lines, she said the LWV had identified in advance criteria it recommended be used, evolving through five drafts and several public workshops.
Of particularly concern, she said, was the failure to truly address keeping communities of interest – those people tied together by race, age, residence in mobile homes, for example – together, so as not to dilute their voting strength. She said such criteria are widely used throughout democratic nations and have been referenced in litigation over redistricting plans.
The LWV, she said, had developed 12 variations of maps that would work to keep those communities of interest intact, finally recommending one of the 12 that they said protected all of the communities of interest that had been identified and would have also kept all current council members in separate districts.
“That recommendation appeared to be considered as possible input,” Clingy said of the public input process at the county level, “but the recommended map and report presented seemed to equate communities of interest with municipalities,” which she emphasized are not the same as communities of interest.
“This was based on different criteria and achieved different results,” she added, pointing out that the county redistricting process had instead used key criteria of changing existing council district boundaries as little as possible, not undoing what the voters had done and avoiding two council members in the same district.
While, she said, the resulting plan does protect Long Neck and Georgetown and does not divide municipalities, “The Cape region and the Quiet Resorts were ignored. Instead, you retained District 5, which runs from South Bethany to west of the Maryland line.”
“The goals of the process were the most critical element,” Clingy added. “They determined the outcome. They deserved to be discussed in a public meeting.” She noted that if more than two council members had had any input in the stated goals, the Freedom of Information Act would have required that the issue be discussed in public.
Deaver questions pair of decisions
Deaver on Oct. 25 also expressed her dissatisfaction with aspects of the redistricting plan.
“It’s a shame you had to divide Ellendale,” she said. “Not the town but the entire district. I think voters will be confused. They’ll think I represent them, and Mr. Wilson does. It’s a shame that that community of interest was not preserved.”
Moore said the issue of Ellendale had been examined, but that it was one of the areas in which state House and Senate districts would have created a district with too few people. “We tried to find a way and we couldn’t.”
Deaver said she had also been asked why, with all of the growth in the eastern, coastal part of Sussex County, only two councilpersons represent the coast.
“They don’t,” corrected Vincent. “They have three,” he clarified, referencing Philips’ representation of District 5, alongside Deaver in District 3 and Cole in District 4. “They voted for that person.”
“They don’t think so,” Deaver said of the county residents in question, reflecting Clingy’s earlier comments about the east-west-running District 5 and its varied population, which is represented by the western-Sussex-residing Phillips, though an increasing amount of its population is in the east.
Cole expressed appreciation of the balance resulting from the districts, in terms of political lines, noting the close numbers of Democrats and Republicans in each district, though the Democrats now hold a slight majority and non-aligned voters make up the balance.
“I don’t think anyone can every say we politically tried to gerrymander any districts,” Cole said. “It seems one party has an edge, but it is a slight edge. In the end, nobody can say we did this along political lines.”
The council did close its public hearing on Tuesday, but due to that typographical error, the record was ordered to remain open until noon on Friday, Oct. 28. County residents can deliver their comments by mail that will be in-hand as of that time, sent to the Clerk of the County, P.O. Box 589, Georgetown, DE 19947, via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or via fax to (302) 855-7749. A copy of the redistricting maps and ordinance are available on the county’s Web site at www.sussexcountyde.gov.