August 8, 2001

New Castle County Council's reapportionment commission approved by a 5-1 vote, with one member absent, a plan that will extend the Second District westward to Greenville. Although the action appears to resolve a dispute between its representative, Robert Weiner and his Third District colleague, Richard Abbott, Council itself will have the final say.

If the commission plan is enacted, Council will have some cleaner lines, but otherwise look pretty much the way it does now for at least the next two years and possibly for 10.

Except for a few minor adjustments, the commission at a meeting on Aug. 6 approved the plan it had previously endorsed. Voting against it was Abbott's representative, Jeffrey Schlerf. Tyrone Johnson, who represented Fourth District councilman Penrose Hollins was absent.

The approved districts, now defined as lines on a map, will be reduced to text form in an ordinance which is to go to Council when it reconvenes on Sept. 11 following its August vacation recess. The ordinance is expected to be passed then or at the Sept. 25 session. The new districts take effect with the 2002 election.

In its penultimate act, a commission appointed by Council took testimony on Aug. 2 on two possible redistricting schemes. For the most part the hearing focused on several Greenville residents objecting to moving Westover Hills and the section of their community which lies on the other (Wilmington) side of the tracks from the Third to the Second District.

The approved plan calls for Weiner's district to be extended westward to the freight railroad line as far as Thompsons

Bridge Road and thence along the Brandywine to the Pennsylvania border. Abbott's district would continue to follow the arc of Delaware's unique circular border to just north of Newark.

Most notable change is including the entire city of Wilmington in one district, the Fourth, which also would extend along Du Pont Highway and New Castle Avenue to the Interstate 295 approach to the Delaware Memorial Bridge with the exclusion of Holloway Terrace. That is Hollins's district.

Robert Woods's First District looses its eastern protrusion toward New Castle to Christopher Roberts' Sixth District, which remains by far the largest, and Karen Venezly's Fifth District grows

NOW AND THEN: New Castle County Council districts as they are now (left) and will be if the redistricting commission's preferred plan is adopted.

slightly. Council's other member, its president, is elected at-large.

All the lines were drawn with incumbents in mind, retaining  the present political complexions of the districts so that they are not handicapped should they choose to seek re-election in 2002. After that, it's anybody's guess because state law calls for Council to be enlarged to 13 members with 12 Council districts before the 2004 election. That would require drawing new district boundaries. There is some talk, however, of changing that law to provide for fewer districts and it is remotely possible that it could be repealed, keeping the status quo.

Elected legislatures are required by the U.S. Constitution to realign themselves after every decennial census with the one-person-one-vote interpretation requiring that the resultant districts be within a reasonable deviation from the average population. New Castle County's average is 83,378/ The redistricting commission's plan provides for deviation ranging from minus 2.76% in the Second District to plus 4.77% in the Sixth. The Sixth District, however, has the lowest percentage of registered voters, 61.7%, while the Second has the highest, 78.7%.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in every district but the Second and Third, with Council's present political composition reflecting that. Council president Christopher Coons also is a Democrat.

The Greenville residents told the redistricting commission at the hearing that splitting their community between two council members -- albeit both Republicans -- would do them a disservice by reducing their clout relative to the rest of the large districts.

"Don't let numbers drive the whole process. ... Generally we have large lot sizes but not many people. If you split us, we'll be spread among more voters and we are going to disappear completely. You won't be able to hear our voices over the noise by so many other voters," John Moore said.

Norm Johnson said one-community-one-representative is significant to preserving cohesion and assuring proper representation of its interests.

Morgan Hendry, president of the Kennett Pike Association, said he had been in Europe and was not up to speed on the work of the commission -- actually its deliberations attracted little media attention except for Delaforum -- but he thought that the Brandywine would be a more logical dividing line. He and other speakers were at pains to claim Greenville's interests have been well supported by both Abbott and Weiner.

William Norwich, president of the Civic League for New Castle County, however, questioned the logic of dividing the incorporated city of Wilmington, which has definite boundaries, instead of an unincorporated amorphous place like Greenville. A minority plan advanced by Schlerf proposed keeping the Third District's south Greenville and Westover Hills constituents while giving Weiner the Kentmere-Rockford section of west Wilmington.

Schleft defended that swap by noting that it did not involve "that much of an intrusion into the city." Although the affected area "might technically be in the city," its demographic makeup is more akin to the Kennett Pike suburbs, he claimed.

While Abbott was the only Council member present at the hearing but did not speak, there was an undercurrent of yet another political squabble between him and his Republican colleague, Weiner. Weiner objected before the hearing to the tone of a letter message Abbott sent to his Greenville constituents urging them to support remaining in his district and to what Weiner alleged were misstatements in the letter.

Norwich, who said he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of the countywide civic association, and David Carver, a resident of Townsend, disputed the wisdom of allotting so much territory to the Sixth District when all projections indicate that is the area of the county which will gain by far the most new residents in the coming decade. The area south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal stands long into the foreseeable future to be the most underrepresented section of the county, Carver said.

Samuel Guy, a former Wilmington city councilman, said both plans before the hearing violated the federal Voting Rights Act in that they reduce the concentration of black voters in the Fourth District from 62.8% at present to 57.7% under the plan likely to be approved and 58.5% under the other one. Hollins presently is the only Afro-American member of Council. There is still a presumption that only if non-whites make up a statistically significant portion of a district's population -- Guy said it is 65% -- will it elect a non-white person to represent it.

 Johnson, read into the record a letter from Leland Ware, the Louis L. Redding professor of law and public policy at the University of Delaware, which declared that the plan did not disperse black voters among other districts, which is prohibited by the federal law. "The commission's redistricting plan does not appear to affect African American voters in a manner that would violate [the law]," Ware declared.

Guy chastised commission chairman Reneé Marks for failure to put the plan Guy submitted before the public. That plan, he said, would append predominantly black areas north and south of the city to Hollins's district, keeping the present ratio while reducing deviation from the population average in all district to less than 2%.

© 2001. All rights reserved.





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