In response to concerns raised by Morgan City resident Cornell Keeler at the June meeting of the Berwick Town Council, a professional demographer was invited to address the council at Tuesday night’s meeting.
Keeler, at the June meeting, accused the Town of Berwick of having “illegal” at-large council seats and discussed filing a lawsuit against the town to force it to have single-member council districts.
Town Attorney Allen McElroy began the discussion.
“There was a question at the last council meeting from a citizen of Morgan City concerning the legality of the five at-large council members that we have,” McElroy said.
“At the time, I indicated it certainly was legal and that the makeup of the charter and that the makeup of five at-large members was permissible under the laws.”
McElroy then introduced Mike Hefner, a consulting demographer, who recently helped Morgan City with its redistricting in anticipation of fall elections. Morgan City was legally bound to redistrict its single-member city council districts due to the results of the 2010 census.
Hefner began his speech by assuring the council that the town was not in violation of any law.
“Berwick is like numerous other municipalities in the state, as well as around the country that operate with at-large districts” he said. “The short answer is that you are not compelled to go to single-member districts.”
“Actually,” Hefner continued, “there is a U.S. Supreme Court decision that is on point with this. It’s Mobile v. Bolden, and that was decided in the early 1980s.”
The city of Mobile, Ala., governed itself with elected commissioners all serving at-large.
“Because of the large African-American population,” Hefner said, “there was a suit filed that would compel them to go to single-member districts. It went to the Supreme Court.”
“They ruled under the 14th amendment and the 15th amendment that the City of Mobile was not required to go to single-member districts in order to ensure the representation of any particular minority or protected class on the commission. The city was free to (maintain) the election method as it so chose,” Hefner said.
“So, there’s no compelling law, federal or state, that says that you have to go to single-member districts.”
Hefner then spoke of conversations that he had with Keeler when he was working on Morgan City’s redistricting.
“The question came up, and Cornell had talked to me when I was doing Morgan City’s redistricting. He wanted to get with me about what the minority population may be for Berwick, and it wasn’t too long before I’d heard before the city attorney that that was a question that was coming up before the council,” Hefner said.
He then explained how the current demographics of Berwick would not allow a majority-minority district.
“Berwick, using the 2010 census population, has an 11.7 percent black population. It’s a very small amount,” he said.
“Along those lines, I wanted to see what kind of plan could be drawn” to get a majority-minority district.
“The largest we could get in one district is 25.7 percent, which is way below plurality, way below an influence district, and it’s certainly well below having a majority-minority district,” Hefner said.
After Hefner’s explanation, Berwick Mayor Louis Ratcliff expressed his relief.
“As long as we’re doing it legally, that makes me feel a lot better,” Ratcliff said.
“And you may recall, too,” Hefner replied, “when your Home-Rule Charter was approved and adopted, it had to get Department of Justice approval under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, and you got that approval. I don’t see anything that’s changed that.”
After Hefner sat down, Ratcliff asked if anyone else would like to speak on the matter. Keeler was present at the meeting, but no one spoke on the issue.
Keeler was interviewed after the meeting.
“I am waiting on word from the Justice Department,” he said. “I called them and told them about Berwick. A justice answered the phone.”
At the June meeting, Keeler claimed to be speaking on behalf of disenfranchised residents of the southern part of Berwick.
“There are five that talked to me,” he said after Tuesday’s meeting. When asked if any of the five were in attendance at the meeting, Keeler said that none were present.
McElroy, town attorney, said this morning via telephone that he had never heard of any such complaints.
Keeler also was asked after the meeting what he would do if the Department of Justice told him that there were no problems with Berwick’s elections.
“Nothing,” he said.