At Redistricting Commission's Public Hearing, a Call to Keep Dallas's Neighborhoods Intact

The end is near! The city's Redistricting Commission has just one more meeting left before its forwards its final recommended map to the city council. And after Saturday's public forum in a jam-packed council chambers, and the commission vote that followed, it looks pretty clear that map will be cPlan16b, the one authored by commissioners Domingo Garcia, Brooks Love and Billy Ratcliff (despite our previous prediction that Bill Betzen's map would be the one moving forward).

Technically, the final vote isn't until tomorrow night, but after Saturday's forum, 10 of the 15 commission members voted to move forward with Plan16. The map's public support was pretty overwhelming, which may have done something to help the commissioners make up their minds: 62 people signed up to speak in favor of the plan Saturday, compared with 22 people who spoke for Plan 3, Bill Betzen's map, and about 10 each for and against Plan 5, which was authored by commissioner Hollis Brashear. Not all of those people actually showed up when it was their time to speak, but it was still a pretty good indicator of public sentiment.

In fact, when chair Ruth Morgan announced that due to the number of speakers for Plan 16, each person would only have 30 seconds at the mic, the crowd laughed and clapped. And when it came time for Neal Emmons to speak in favor of the map, the former city plan commissioner for District 14 turned around to face the audience and asked everyone who was there for map 16 to stand. When seemingly half the room stood up, he declared, "This is the map of our future! Thank you!" to much cheering and applause.

It was also Emmons who came by to say hi to me before the meeting started, pounded me on the back and said, jokingly, "You came out for the slugfest! Good for you!" But actually, the forum was on the whole a pretty civilized affair, even when some speakers were obviously frustrated with how their neighborhoods will likely change shape. (But Sandra Crewnshaw, Marvin Crenshaw and Roy Williams are still threatening legal action against the commission -- they mentioned that several times on Saturday. Several, several times.)

Mayor Mike Rawlings showed up a little after the forum began and extended his thanks to Morgan and the rest of the commission. "Thank you to all of you around this horseshoe," he said, "for your time, effort, wisdom and cooperation with each other." He thanked everyone in the crowd for their participation -- every seat in the was filled at 2 p.m., with even more people standing in the back -- saying, "I think it'll be a good day."

"This is when the government works," he added. "When we put citizens first and political agendas second." Everybody liked that.

A few themes emerged from the public testimony. On the whole, the people who supported Bill Betzen's map came from the current Districts 7 and 8 and other parts of East Dallas. These are really massive, spread-out districts, and many people spoke about how difficult it was to even get to a district meeting now. Others, like Luke Davis from Lake Highlands, praised the map's "contiguity, compactness and simplicity." Most of the opposition was from District 13, and said they'd be more in favor of the map if Betzen moved its western boundary slightly -- the same thing that commissioner Elizabeth Jones has said at a number of meetings.

Plan 5, Brashear's plan, had most of its support from resident of the current Districts 4 and 5. Council member Vonciel Jones Hill also spoke in favor of it, saying that Brashear's plan "maintains the integrity of communities in South Oak Cliff." 

But council member Dwaine Caraway disagreed -- he got up to speak a few minutes later in opposition, and said that in his view, the map "completely destroys Oak Cliff." Caraway urged the commission, not for the first time, to "work on the bottom half of this map," saying that the southern districts still need a lot of work to make them viable. He then turned to face the audience and promised that when the map reaches the city council "we will tweak it to put Dallas together. ... We ain't gonna be playing political games." Everybody liked that too.

Council member Carolyn Davis also spoke against Plan 5, because, she said, "it puts council members against each other. ... In 2013, Dwayne and I would have to run against each other." (Even though we're sure she knows, just like everybody must at this point, that map proposals aren't supposed to take incumbency into account. But we'll say it again, just in case.)

She was also displeased that the map wouldn't support a fourth African-American seat, calling that "absolutely wrong," and adding, "We will lose what little power we have now." But every proposal has at least one less majority African-American district -- Betzen's and Brashear's both have three, while Garcia's has two three also; District 7 would be 49 percent African-American, which is considered a majority.

Although Plan 16 obviously enjoyed broad support, people from Districts 2 and 14 were especially well represented. The previous modifications the commissioners made to District 10, which encompasses Lake Highlands, were obviously popular too. By contrast, people who were unhappy with Plan 16 were often from District 5, specifically the Singing Hills area, which they said would be divided by this map. 

Speaking of Singing Hills, it's one of the neighborhoods that's come up repeatedly over the course of the public testimony this summer. So have Pleasant Grove, Buckner Terrace, Lake Highlands, Hamilton Park and a handful of other historic communities. As a relative newcomer to the city, it's become very clear through this process how much Dallas is a patchwork of small towns, ones that are well-established and those that are still emerging or re-building.

People also spoke movingly about areas that have changed or vanished. In Saturday's testimony we heard about Frogtown, Little Egypt, Little Mexico -- a host of places that vanished because boundary lines moved, demographics changed, political representation shifted. City redistricting might feel like a dry political exercise, but its consequences are visceral and real.

Dwayne Wooton, who spoke in opposition to Plan 16, talked about her grandmother, who was born in Dallas in 1876. She was from the State-Thomas area, which Wooton herself has been priced out of in subsequent years, she said.

"I have been displaced out of the community I grew up in," she told the commission and the crowd. "My ancestors built this area. Don't erase me."

Finally, we just want to point out a comment Betzen just left on that previous item, in which he thanked everyone for their support and said that Plan 16 "will still represent significant progress. It will eliminate 125 of the gerrymandered miles of City Council District boundary. I hope to be involved in this process again in 2021 to eliminate the other 40 gerrymandered miles and finish the job. Hopefully there will be many more people wanting to do the same thing then if we cannot get it done in 2011."

The final meeting will be tomorrow at 6 p.m. You can still submit your testimony up until Tuesday, by emailing or calling the commission. Seriously, the end is near. Until the city council gets this map, and then the whole thing kinda starts all over again. Sigh. We'll see you there.

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