The District Lines Debate
Former Bibb County Commissioner Jerome Chism addressed the Commission as part of the agenda Monday night. Mr. Chism stated that his rental home location in District 3 – which would put him running against County Commission candidates Walt Williams, Kenny Hicks, and Matt Downs – is not correct. The problem? Mr. Chism wants to run in District 5, against Rodney Stabler, and wants his rental home placed in District 5. The kicker? Ballots issued by his party in Montgomery state that he is running in District 5 already. So, what was any of this about, anyway?
Chism claims that the residence he has rented from Centreville City Councilman Don Mack has always been in District 5 and there was an oversight when lines were redrawn twenty years ago that caused the house to show in District 3. Subsequently, he added, after the 2010 census (The only time district lines are typically moved is after a new census shows a need.) the line between districts 3 and 5 was not changed, as no one noticed it wasn’t correct.
When the lines were confirmed in 2011 – following changes to lines for districts 1,3, and 4, but not 5 – Jerome Chism was a county commissioner and signed the document that accepted the district lines as drawn, which is where they remain today. His claim is that no one ever discussed this line being moved from its original location, which put the house in District 3. While everyone accepted the assertion that an oversight occurred, Commissioner Keefe Burt pointed out that it was accepted as it was drawn regardless of discussion or not by the Commission at the time.
“What it looks like to me, Mr. Chism,” Burt began, “is that either you live at the wrong place, or that you qualified at the wrong district. One or the other. Either way it’s something that you have done that we haven’t done.”
“Oh, I agree with that,” Chism responded.
“Well, that’s end of discussion. Because you’ve got to live in the district that you qualified, that you want to be a commissioner in,” Burt said.
It should be noted here that after the commission meeting was over – in a conversation outside the commission room – Mr. Chism stated that he in fact lives in West Blocton, in District 1, but owns a house across the street from the house in question. He currently has that residence rented out. Being as the house he owns that is obviously in District 5 was rented, he rented the house across the street from Councilman Mack in order to qualify to run in District 5. Or so he thought, until it was pointed out that Mack’s house was drawn in District 3, unlike its placement in District 5 after the 1990 census.
Discussion continued in an increasingly heated manner beyond this point. Chism also introduced another representative to speak for his cause.
Phyllis Parker stood to address the Commission, stating that she was formerly on the Board of Registrars when the redistricting occurred in 1991. She said that they used the city limit lines of Centreville when redrawing district lines. “We were accused of gerrymandering,” Parker said, “but, we were trying to get the minority population to be 67% so they could be viable and elect a minority commissioner.”
Parker went on to state that documents state that Councilman Mack’s property was annexed into the Centreville city limits in 1990 (see previous article here concerning Centreville City Council’s discussion of this topic recently), and implied that as such the district voting lines would have followed the city lines and put all of Mack’s property within District 5, including the house in question.
County Attorney Anthony Johnson addressed this point, “Miss Parker, with due respect, that’s apples and oranges.” He continued to explain that “there was never the intent” of the Bibb County Commission or West Alabama Regional Commission (which certifies the lines) in 2010, to follow the exact city limit lines when drawing voting district lines. He added that the appearance of the city limit lines on the district map was purely incidental and had no bearing on district lines placement.
Johnson further stated that if the lines had been drawn along city limit lines, they could have been guilty of gerrymandering as that line only deviates from a straight line to take in Mack’s property. He said that because of this consideration, it did not appear that the county district lines as drawn were an oversight at all.
As discussion began to turn to argument, Commissioner Burt stated, “This is what we have. This is what we have to go by. You qualified in the wrong district. It’s that simple.”
“No,” Chism said.
Parker said she went with her father to federal court when he sued to have the district redrawn to be a minority district. “He would be rolling over in his grave,” she said. She went on to say that she would call the Justice Department to investigate, due to the minority percentage of District 5 being less than 67%.
“This would not change that,” Burt replied. He added that the lines may in fact change after the 2020 census, but now was not the time to change them.
In November 2019, the issue was brought to the Commission during a closed Executive Session. At the time, Johnson requested the closed session to discuss “a potential legal matter regarding voting issues.” Commissioner Stabler excused himself from the session, as it was his district in question, concerning the issue later brought publicly by Mr. Chism on February 10. However, during that session in November, the Commission decided to confirm Resolution 2011-12 and keep the lines as they were drawn and had been in practice since accepted in 2011.
Chism continued to press his point, and requested the Commission “reinstate” the house in question in District 5. Commissioner Burt said they could not move the line. Chism acknowledged that the line could not at this point be moved and said that was not what he was asking.
Burt replied, “Mr. Chism it has been in that district since it was redistricted. I don’t know what happened before then, I know what is now.”
After brief additional arguments, Chism said, “I’m through,” and left the room.
Given all of the information that came out Monday night, it appears that regardless of the twenty minutes of debate and objections to his rental house being in District 3, Mr. Chism has qualified to run in District 5 anyway, even though he only owns property there and does not, by his own admission, live there.
The Bibb Voice will be further investigating the situation. Look for future reports.
Other Items of the Night
The South Bibb Park Board replaced Cecil Lagrone with Mike McMillan to no objections.
Millage rates for county employees were voted to remain the same for 2020 as they have been.
County Engineer Jeff McKinney said they expected flooded roads and would be watching for damage, but had nothing else to report at this time.
*UPDATE: A correction was made to clarify that Mr. Chism had qualified to run and was on the ballot for District 5, not District 3. He did not claim to be qualified to run in District 3, only that his rental home was located in District 3 by mistake.