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Jacksonville council approves redistricting maps in nearly unanimous vote

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Claire Heddles
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WJCT News
Republican Beaches Councilman Rory Diamond was the sole no vote, saying the maps protect incumbents over representation.

The Jacksonville City Council voted 17-1 on Tuesday to adopt redistricting maps that protect incumbents and invite legal action from civil rights groups that say the maps disenfranchise Black voters.

Council members made only minor changes before signing off on voting districts that will determine council and School Board representation for the next decade.

The action came despite criticism from hundreds of residents about the maps during public hearings.

Republican Beaches Councilman Rory Diamond was the sole no vote.

City Council’s Rules Committee oversaw the 14-month redistricting process, during which council members prioritized changing the maps as minimally as possible from the last time they redid the maps in 2010. That decision was at the root of Diamond's opposition, he said.

“I feel that these maps look almost exactly the same from what we started with what we have now, and to me that was essentially done to preserve the status quo and to protect incumbents,” Diamond said. “Given that’s the result, I certainly can't support it.”

At the start of the redistricting process, Diamond was a key figure in a complaint against the Duval Democratic Party Chair Daniel Henry. The complaint alleged Diamond tried to cut a backroom deal with Henry to break up Democratic-majority districts. Diamond and Henry denied wrongdoing.

The most significant changes from the current voting maps include moving the Thomas Creek area in Jacksonville’s Northside from District 7 to District 8, putting the University of North Florida campus into District 3 instead of District 11 and moving the Sunbeam neighborhood in Mandarin from District 6 to District 5.

By and large, the maps reflect few changes from the current voting districts.

Civil rights and voting rights advocates have threatened legal action over the maps, which they say amount to racial gerrymandering by packing Black voters predominantly into Districts 7, 8, 9 and 10.

Rules Committee Chair Brenda Priestly Jackson doubled down on defending the maps in recent days, amid mounting outside criticism for not amending the maps in response to the feedback from public hearings.

“I believe these proposed maps adequately and fairly represent the needs of all of our neighbors, and it allows the neighbors in 7, 8, 9 and 10 to maintain self determination and decide who they vote for and where their voice is in the communities where they live,” Priestly Jackson told council Tuesday night.

Under the federal Voting Rights Act, cities must analyze whether minority communities are able to elect candidates of their choice. If not, they must draw voting districts that ensure equal representation.

Voting rights advocates say council members maintained the four historic majority-Black voting districts by assuming they ensure equal representation, but without actually analyzing voting data, and in effect diluted the influence of Black voters throughout the rest of the city.

“I understand that there are others who have said they're going to bring litigation, and I absolutely believe that if they believe that an infringement on the 14th Amendment has occurred, that is their obligation and their responsibility to do that,” Priestly Jackson said Tuesday.

Paige Johnston, general counsel for the city, previously told council she believes the council would win if the maps are legally challenged.

Council could have rejected the map Tuesday and sent it back to the Rules Committee for amendments before the April 12 deadline to finish the process, but members voted not to.

A handful of residents spoke against the new maps ahead of the vote during Tuesday's public hearing.

“Our vote carries our weight. If you take and you marginalize our vote, put us in four districts, we have no power. Our leaders have no power on this council,” resident Ayesha Covington said.

A representative from the Duval Democratic Party also addressed the council, opposing the maps. The party issued a statement Tuesday afternoon urging the council to oppose the maps.

“The local redistricting process and proposed city council maps reflect an unfair and gerrymandered process that we cannot endorse,” the Democrats’ statement said. “The current maps further cement incumbents while sacrificing accurate representation of the Jacksonville community”

Breaking with their party’s plea, all five sitting Democrats on council voted in favor of the maps. Mayor Lenny Curry will have to sign off on the maps before they take effect.

A coalition of civil rights groups, including the Jacksonville NAACP, Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU of Northeast Florida, have called on Curry to veto the maps.

"These maps would diminish the voices of Black communities, and we cannot allow that to happen," SPLC senior staff attorney Jack Genberg wrote. "SPLC stands with the communities of Jacksonville in calling on Mayor Curry to veto these discriminatory maps."

Tuesday’s vote came during an hourslong City Council meeting, when more than 50 residents spoke out about a separate plan to remove remaining Confederate monuments in Jacksonville.

The proposal from Councilman Matt Carlucci would allocate $500,000 toward removing monuments. The bill is still moving through committee and likely won’t face a full council vote until late April.