The New Orleans City Council is working to draw new council district boundaries to reflect the city’s population as reported in the 2020 census. But the council only has a month left to finalize the new map before it runs afoul of a legal deadline established by the city’s Home Rule Charter.
“I want to begin by apologizing to the public about the way the redistricting process has unfolded so far,” Councilman JP Morrell said at a Wednesday meeting of the Governmental Affairs Committee. “We are kind of under the gun as a new council to get this process complete on the appropriate timeline.”
The city charter imposes a six-month deadline to create a council district map following the publication of the decennial census. The final version of the 2020 census was released on Sept. 16, 2021, meaning the council has until March 16 to approve a new map. If it doesn’t, the task would automatically fall to a special commission made up of local university presidents and a representative appointed by each council member. Council members would forfeit their salaries until that commission finalized new boundaries.
Morrell, who joined the council in January along with four other new members, said the previous council should have acted faster. And he pointed specifically to the former chair of the Government Affairs Committee — Kristin Palmer. Morrell defeated Palmer in a contentious council election for one of two at-large seats last November.
“We are dealing with the cards we’ve been dealt,” he said. “This process should have started last year under the previous chair of Governmental Affairs. There should have been a more lengthy process, it should have involved more input.”
In a statement to The Lens, Palmer pushed back on Morrell’s statements, saying the process was being led by Council President Helena Moreno, not by Palmer or the Government Affairs Committee.
Regardless of blame, the current council is now trying to finish the process over the next month, including the two busiest weeks of Carnival season.
The main goal of the redistricting process is to make sure each district has roughly the same amount of residents. One of the council’s consultants, Kate Doiron with FLO Analytics, said that the difference between the biggest and smallest districts could be 10 percent at most, but that the city’s goal was 5 percent.
The biggest changes to the current map will likely occur in Districts C and D. Between 2010 and 2020, every council district grew in population except District C, which lost 8,686 residents, according to the census. District D — which includes Gentilly, the 7th Ward, the Desire and Florida areas and a small portion of New Orleans East — grew more than double the rate of any other district. There is currently an 18 percent difference in those two population sizes, Doiron said.
District C consists mainly of the French Quarter, Marigny, Bywater and Algiers. It also includes smaller portions of St Roch, Treme, St. Claude and the 7th Ward on the border with District D. One possible scenario is that District C would absorb more of those neighborhoods from District D.
Doiron said that there could also be minor changes to other districts based on factors other than balancing the resident count. She said changes could be made to ensure neighborhoods aren’t split up into different districts and that districts maintain certain demographics.
All of that, however, is going to require a lot of community input — the biggest challenge given the city’s truncated timeline.
The council this week published a “redistricting engagement portal” where residents can leave comments and questions, draw their ideal district map, or draw the boundaries of what they consider to be their community so that it isn’t divided into multiple districts. The council will accept public comments until March 7.
On Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 5:30 p.m., the council is scheduled to hold virtual public informational meetings. The council will then hold a public hearing on Feb. 22 to release a group of draft maps created by the consultants.
Doiron stressed that these initial maps will just be the starting point to begin collecting community input.
“This is our very first take. It’s really FLO trying to balance the population and show some different options. And they absolutely will change before the end. We want them to change…. We hope to get a lot of public comments asking for adjustments to a map or saying which you prefer.”
The next step is holding district-level public engagement sessions. The consultants said those would run from March 3 to March 7. But some council members raised concerns about starting those meetings the day after Ash Wednesday. Councilman Joe Giarrusso said that people simply weren’t going to be engaged at that point. He added that a lot of residents travel during Mardi Gras and that with school vacations, a lot of parents will be spending that time with their kids.
“I am very concerned that people are going to feel like the cake is baked,” said Councilman Joe Giarrusso.
Morrell and Councilwoman Lesli Harris agreed.
“The Friday before Mardi Gras to the Friday after Mardi Gras is pretty much a no-fly zone,” Morrell said. “Redistricting is a very fraught process to begin with, and if there’s any lack of public confidence this was done in a transparent way where participation is maximized, it’s going to really undercut whatever the ultimate product is.”
Doiron said that timeline was done so that they could close public comment by March 7. She said it will take them a few days to process all the public comments and create new maps based on the input by March 11. She said they could move back the engagement meetings, but that would mean the council would have less time to review the draft map before they had to approve it on March 16.
Morrell suggested they might have to amend the consultant contract to get it done quicker. The City Council’s Chief of Staff Paul Harang said he would work with the consultants on potential timeline changes.