In the wake of a federal judge striking down Jacksonville’s redistricting map for its 2023 elections, a City Council Special Committee began work anew Thursday with an eye toward completion in just a few weeks.
The committee, which consists of six Republicans and one Democrat, was formed this month, after Judge Marcia Morales Howard ruled the map passed earlier this year was illegal and created “unnecessary racial segregation.” The major issue: it packed Black voters North and West of the St. Johns River into four City Council districts.
That offered advantage to a few Democrats, but at a cost. Though Duval County has a Democratic plurality, Republicans have had a supermajority on the City Council, with the map contributing to the imbalance.
Yet the strongest voices in favor of the packing scheme were Black Democrats, including the sole Democrat on the current committee. Ju’Coby Pittman, who was appointed to the Council by Republican then-Gov. Rick Scott (then elected the next year), balked at adding Baldwin to District 8 to keep the district’s ethnic composition intact.
The City Council nonetheless is attempting to create a map that undoes decades of precedent on a rapid timetable, with a placeholder map introduced to the Council Oct. 25, then three more meetings of the Special Committee the first week of November and a “map chat” town hall on Nov. 3, before a special meeting of the Council Nov. 4.
Council President Terrance Freeman vowed to meet that deadline, and is leading the “diverse, bipartisan, and experienced” committee that includes three Council Presidents and a “variety of perspectives to get the job done.”
“I’m committed to this process being as transparent and open as possible,” Freeman said, noting that all committee meetings will have public comment.
Mary Margaret Giannini from the Office of General Counsel (OGC) noted that a redistricting consultant, Douglas Johnson of California, has been tasked with helping provide maps for review and consideration. Johnson, an alumnus of the conservative Claremont College, will be present for next month’s meetings.
Council members were urged to undertake a “wholesale review” of the districts, especially those north and west of the St. Johns that proved most controversial and not just “tinker around the edges.” They seemed inclined to tinkering, however, during open discussion.
Committee member Aaron Bowman noted that Council directed the OGC to appeal, wondering what would happen if the city prevailed. He was advised that the “court’s deadline” required the city to move forward on “dual tracks” with new maps given the uncertain timing of any appeal relief, but worried nonetheless of a “potential explosion” ahead if the maps aren’t finalized by December.
Rory Diamond complained that people could be “confused” by the process, saying that many things could happen. One possibility: the conservative 11th Circuit Court of Appeals could in fact side with the city, which would set up a trial defending the map the City Council already passed. But if a new map passes?
“That new map is going to be different than what we’ve seen in Jacksonville since 1991,” Diamond said, vowing a map that passes “constitutional muster” despite the tight time frame allowed the Council on the revision process.
Democrat Reggie Gaffney wanted to see if the redistricting expert would “reach out to Council members for input,” an irony given Gaffney’s insistence that his own district remain over 70% Democratic during the previous process, which mirrored the maps from the last decade’s redistricting in much of the city. He offered his “institutional knowledge” as a guidepost for map revision.
“The maps are ours, they’re not the attorneys’,” agreed Bowman.
Republican Matt Carlucci said an appeal to defend the struck down map was a bad idea. He made a case for “less partisan” lines and fewer “safe districts” that would hold Council members to “greater accountability” from the community, but that was not a majority view Thursday.
It is worth noting that any new map will change School Board districts also, as these are tied to City Council districts.