As the redistricting process goes on (and on and on), you might expect the public to become less involved, especially when a meeting takes place late on a college-football Saturday afternoon. But, in fact, the opposite seems to be true: Yesterday's public forum, like the one in August, was packed, with every single seat in the council chambers full.
Mayor Mike Rawlings opened the meeting by praising the turnout, saying, "There are lots of people at the forum here today who care about the city of Dallas." Part of the purpose of the day, he said, was to talk about "where we've gotten to today and how we've gotten there. ... The process must be open and transparent."
But he was "concerned," he said, "about allegations that the redistricting commission was not so transparent." He assured the crowd that he had asked City Attorney Tom Perkins to look in to the matter, and that the mayor himself had also conducted "personal interviews." "Those allegations are false," Rawlings relayed. "They're rumors, and they're conspiracy thinking. I'm proud of what this commission did and how it did it."
What he was referring to, of course, was redistricting chair Ruth Morgan's concerns about commissioner Domingo Garcia holding private meetings with other commissioners, as well as accusations that the lines were drawn to protect incumbents. "The majority of commissioners didn't know where anyone lived on this council," Rawlings said. "I believed them and took them at their word."
That said, he acknowledged, "There was politicking. ... This was, and is, a political exercise. That's America. This is a healthy political process, and I believe it worked. ... You may disagree, and that's your prerogative. ... But I will not let [the commission's] work go sullied without saying something." He received a long round of applause for that, the first of several.
But the meeting also began with a fair amount of confusion. Several members of the public were annoyed that they had been told by city staff they wouldn't have to sign up to speak, and thus missed out on a chance to get on the speaker's list (there were about 75 people who actually got to talk). Additionally, the city council members began by condensing and discarding several of their 10 proposed amended maps, including a couple of the proposals by council members Dwaine Caraway, Tennell Atkins and Carolyn Davis. But the council was referring to the maps by what "tab" they were on, while members of the public just had a sheaf of stapled-together papers to refer to. This lead to some confusion and rustling in the audience while they tried to figure out exactly which maps were being thrown away.
Ultimately, judging from the public speakers and the comments from the council, popular support seems to be coalesced around two plans: Amendment 2, by Caraway, Davis and Atkins, which would have four strong African-American districts, and what's being referred to as the "combination plan", which was drawn by Delia Jasso, Scott Griggs, Monica Alonzo, Linda Koop and Ann Margolin, but now seems to have potential support from the Caraway and Atkins, because it retains three strong African-American seats, with the potential for a fourth win in a coalition district.
But earlier in the day, Mayor Rawlings also submitted amendments to Bill Betzen's Plan 3, saying it appeared to have the most tightly drawn districts, with the largest degree of contiguity and compactness while still preserving minority representation. "When I looked at this map, this was the one that did the best job with that," he said. He would amend it, he said, by expanding District 14 to include Uptown and extend District 1 north and east of the Trinity River, he said.
At that point, Marvin Crenshaw, whose lawsuit with Roy Williams led to the creation of 14-1, started yelling at the mayor from the audience, accusing him of not working to support a fourth African-American council seat. The mayor looked at him and responded, "We're going to be real friendly here. But if it happens again, I'm going to ask you to leave." When a woman started yelling from the audience an hour or so later, he quieted her by saying, "Please, respect," several times.
When it came time for public comment, Rawlings repeated that sentiment before allowing the public to speak, warning them to address all their comments to him and stick to the subject of the maps at hand. "I won't tolerate histrionics," he said. "I don't want to sacrifice anybody's civil right to speak to the city council."
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Almost immediately, Roy Williams, the other man responsible for 14-1, came up to the mic to tell the mayor that he was going to push for Rawlings to be recalled. Rawlings stayed calm. "Mr. Williams and Mr. Crenshaw made 14-1 happen," he said to the crowd, to a round of applause. "We're here because of them."
After yesterday, there's also no question where the mayor stands on the subject of four "winnable" African-American council seats, which he called "the elephant in the room." The mayor went on to say the he personally supports the idea of four black districts, and promised to "work with the maps to get us to the best place to do that." (But during his public testimony, redistricting commissioner John Loza also implored the mayor to keep in mind the needs of the Latino community, saying that anything less than five districts for them "would be an insult.")
On the whole, Rawlings said, "I feel like we're in a good position. ... We have the choice of several good maps. That's a great challenge to have." That said, he acknowledged the weaknesses of the forum's structure, saying, "It was a good meeting, but it wasn't perfect. I take accountability for that." He apologized to the public speakers who accused him of "disrespecting" the decisions of the redistricting commission by putting forward Betzen's map for consideration again, saying he only wanted to understand "the strengths and weaknesses" of each plan.
Rawlings compared a fair redistricting process to "trying to walk and chew gum at the same time." He promised the council will have a final map to submit the Department of Justice by October 15, and, once more, praised the public for coming out to the forum, even with all the yelling. "It's OK to be passionate," he said. "I want passionate citizens in this city."