The New Orleans City Council unanimously approved new borders for the city’s five council districts on Wednesday, the last day it could do so before running afoul of a deadline set in the city charter.
The passage of the map, however, doesn’t mean the end to the local redistricting debate. During public comment, residents criticized the process and the lack of public engagement. And Councilman JP Morrell once again committed to introducing a city charter amendment to ensure a longer redistricting process and allow the council to create additional districts.
“This process has been rushed and somewhat force fed to the voting population,” resident Steven Kennedy said. “This process should have started months ago.”
“I don’t think anyone up here disagrees with you,” Morrell responded. “This entire process is problematic.”
The new map is fairly similar to the old one. Among the most noticeable changes is that the entire Treme neighborhood is now included in District C — which had to be enlarged to maintain a population balance among the districts — instead of being split between Districts C and D. Several other nearby neighborhoods will remain divided between those two districts, including the Seventh Ward, St. Roch and St Claude.
The council did not make the controversial change of moving the Lower 9th Ward into a new district, as had been discussed.
The new map also puts all of Broadmoor into District B. The old map divided the neighborhood between Districts A and B. Other smaller changes were made in order to ensure individual precincts weren’t split between multiple districts, according to the council’s consultants.
A central requirement of redistricting is ensuring that all districts have roughly the same populations. From 2010 to 2020, according to census data, District D grew to be the city’s largest district, while District C was the only one that lost population. The map changes approved on Wednesday will bring the population difference between those two districts from 18.1 percent to 4 percent. The biggest deviation between any two districts will now be 6.5 percent.
‘I don’t see us included anywhere in this process’
The city charter requires the council to create a new district map within six months of each federal decennial census. If the council blows that deadline, the redistricting process 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.
The 2020 census was finalized on Sept. 16, meaning that today was the last day the council could pass a new map before it blew that six-month deadline.
But the redistricting process only started in earnest a month ago. On Feb. 23, the city’s consultants released draft maps and started collecting public comment through an online “engagement portal.” The consultants also held virtual public engagement meetings from March 7 to March 9. At that point, the official public comment period closed.
On Monday, the consultants presented the council with four new draft maps based on those public comments. Controversially, three out of four of the maps moved the Lower 9th Ward from District E — which includes eastern New Orleans — to District C — which includes the French Quarter, Marigny, Bywater and Algiers.
Based on feedback — in particular pushback from Lower 9th Ward residents who wanted to remain in District E — the consultants created two new maps that were presented for the first time today. The council ended up choosing one of those two maps.
Some residents complained that because the final maps were only released roughly two hours before the council voted, the public never got the chance to meaningfully comment on it.
“I don’t see us included anywhere in this process,” Morgan Clevenger said on Wednesday. “It’s very, very discouraging.”
From the start, Morrell has conceded that the redistricting process was too compressed to allow for proper debate and input. Morrell, who was recently elected, said the process should have been much further along by the time he joined the council in January.
Morrell said currently, the charter only has a deadline, but no mandated start date. He said that his charter amendment would force the council to start the redistricting process as soon as the decennial census is finalized.
Other residents have expressed frustration that the process didn’t allow the council to consider expanding the council by shrinking the existing districts and adding new ones. The current council is made up of five district council members, who are elected by the residents in that district, and two at-large members, who are elected through a city-wide vote.
Some similarly sized American cities have much larger councils. Cleveland, which has roughly the same population, has 17 council members representing distinct geographical areas of the city. But the number of council districts in New Orleans is set in the city charter, meaning the council can’t change it through regular legislation. Charter changes require voter approval through a local election.
Morrell said the second thing his charter amendment would do is give the council flexibility to change the number of districts.
“You would have maps that look very different. You wouldn’t have things like Algiers, which could be its own district, being shoehorned with the French Quarter, Marigny and Bywater.”
Morrell hasn’t officially introduced the charter amendment yet, and it would ultimately still need approval from New Orleans voters.