Lawsuit in Natchez Over Voting: Alderman Move Ahead With Redrawing Districts

By John Mott Coffey, with News Mississippi affiliate WQNZ

NATCHEZ, Miss.–The Natchez Board of Aldermen began Monday the process for redrawing the city’s six wards as required by law to ensure the districts don’t discriminate against black voters.

This comes after a federal voting rights lawsuit was filed against the city by former mayor Phillip West and other blacks last month. The suit seeks to get the board to redraw the ward lines, which have remained the same since after the 2000 Census. New wards drawn in 2012 were rejected by the U.S. Justice Department just before that year’s city’s elections. The six aldermen were then elected from the old wards drawn from the 2000 census.

The board voted Monday to hire consultants to help draw new wards for next year’s city elections and retain attorneys to help defend the city in the voting rights lawsuit

The Board of Aldermen has three blacks and three whites.

The Justice Department said the board  in 2012  reduced Ward 5’s black voting-age population and failed to prove it wasn’t done to prevent the election of a black alderman. Ward 5 Alderman Mark  Fortenbery — who’s white — represents the ward, which  has about a 52 percent black voting-age population, according to the U.S. Census data.

Election districts are redrawn every 10 years to ensure they reflect population changes and aren’t malapportioned. However, the new wards for the 2016 election don’t have to be reviewed by the Justice Department. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 threw out the preclearance provisions the Justice Department had used for 40 years to ensure Natchez and other southern cities and states didn’t make election changes that impair blacks’ voting rights..

The board kicked the public out of Monday’s meeting to discuss the redistricting issues. State law allows a government board to close the public out “when an open meeting would have a detrimental effect on the litigating position” of the board. City attorney Hyde Carby said an open session would hurt the city’s defense in the voting rights lawsuit.

“I advised (the mayor and board)  that we should have this strategy session in executive session as I think it would hurt the city’s position to reveal its strategies to its opponents,” Carby said.

The public was later allowed back into the meeting, and the board voted with little discussion to hire the Oxford-based consulting firm and the Jackson-based law firm for the city’s redistricting issues.

West, former Adams County Justice Court judge Mary Lee Toles and two other blacks joined in filing the May 22 lawsuit against Natchez in U.S. District Court.

Carby said after the meeting that the aldermen’s redrawing of ward lines will be on “a separate but parallel” track with the lawsuit While new wards don’t require a federal judge’s approval, they could be challenged in court by West or others who don’t like what the city board eventually approves, Carby said.

In addition to redistricting city wards, the board’s Monday meeting covered city finances, city sign restrictions and attempts for a new owner to buy the Natchez Mall. “There are negotiations taking place on the sale of the mall today, as we speak,” said Mayor Butch Brown.

He didn’t say much else about this during the board’s discussion, which was prompted by Alderman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis previously being told a prospective buyer for the mall backed out several years because Natchez’ sign ordinance is too strict. Brown disputed that and noted new businesses are not being discouraged by the sign limits Natchez imposes.