This Whole Commission's Out of Order: City of Dallas's Redistricting Fun Really Begins

OK, no one has actually studied the effects of redistricting on the human body, but after last night it seems safe to say that the longer a redistricting process goes on, the grouchier everybody gets. At the county level, we have Maurine Dickey's temper tantrum as evidence. And last night's meeting of the city's Redistricting Commission  featured some yelling from the audience, some yelling from the commissioners and a few stern words from Ruth Morgan, the chair whose no-backroom-shenanigans  and keep-it-civil policies are well documented.

But, first, a guest star: Mayor Mike Rawlings showed up for a redistricting meeting for the first time last night, sitting quietly at the staff table and munching on a boxed lunch. When Morgan asked if he'd like to say anything, he replied, "No, I'm just learning and listening. ... Thank you to all of you for your time."

But Mayor Mike disappeared pretty soon after it became clear that what was to be the main event of the evening, the presentation of Dwaine Caraway's not exactly street-legal map by commissioner Billy Ratcliff, was not going to happen after all. Ratcliff announced that he wouldn't be presenting the plan, as it is still "in evolution." "It has evolved from this to the plan that I'll be presenting on August 4th."

This was not thrilling news for former city council person Sandra Crenshaw. "We signed up to speak on this plan as scheduled," she said, referring to herself and Marvin Crenshaw. Morgan allowed them both time to air their grievances about Caraway's proposed map, at which point Crenshaw said she believes it is "a violation of the code of ethics for [Ratcliff] to be advancing a map by a council member."

"This will be articulated at every public forum," she promised, and "through other means," including, she said, complaints to the Department of Justice and the city's own Ethics Commission.

The next bout of uncomfortableness came minutes later, when 24-year-old college student Randall Bryant presented his redistricting map. Donna Halstead, a commissioner fresh from her own proposed map being tabled amidst accusations from other commissioners of deliberate minority disenfranchisement, told Bryant, who is African-American, that his map was, in fact, kinda racist. Specifically, she criticized him for drawing District 10 in such a way that, according to her, "an Anglo would definitely be re-elected." But she also told him, "To look at this only in terms of the color of skin of the individuals is to be very shortsighted."

During the public comment period, former Unfair Park-er Sam Merten got up to talk about some changes he's made to his own proposal. ("Why is he speaking if he lives in Frisco?" a lady whispered agitatedly behind me. "I think he works in town," whispered her companion.) Specifically, he's moved Buckner Terrace into District 2, put all of Vickery Meadow in District 13, and all of Oak Lawn into District 14.

"The Village should not be in District 13," said a slightly testy commissioner Elizabeth Jones. "People keep trying to chew my western boundary of my district." She added that Merten's map "makes a lot of radical changes that need not be made." Domingo Garcia also asked Merten, again, why his proposal signficantly alters District 2, Pauline Medrano's district.

"I didn't make this map to protect incumbents," Merten said, very, very politely. He was equally calm with commissioner John Loza, who thanked him for coming and then said, "Now I'm gonna come after you." Loza demanded to know what the Hispanic neighborhoods along Maple -- "One of which I live in" -- have in common with Turtle Creek and Uptown. Merten replied that several districts are quite diverse, pointing to District 14 as an example.

"It doesn't sound like you have an answer for me, so I'm gonna just move on," Loza said.

"I've tried to answer your questions," Merten replied.

The low point of the meeting came during Bill Betzen's presentation: He's narrowed down his three maps to just one, and told the commission, "I really do enjoy working on these maps. ... I'm getting better all the time."

But Jones became visibly annoyed with him, telling him, "You have altered the north considerably," adding that he'd made a lot of changes to District 13. "I've told you again and again," she said, at a volume that could fairly be described as shouting, "take the Village out and put it back where it belongs!"

From the audience, Crenshaw shouted back, "The public doesn't take directives from the commission! The commission takes directives from the public."

"You're out of order," Morgan told her.

"You never call your commissioners out of order," Crenshaw replied. Morgan told her that she'd be asked to leave if she didn't abide by the rules of conduct. "That's in order," Crenshaw replied, and was quiet for the remainder of the meeting.

Jones turned back to Betzen and said, in a normal tone of voice, that she hoped he would "allow [himself] to embrace" the changes she's recommended.

Just a suggestion, but maybe the commission and the regulars in the audience might want to embrace some deep breathing exercises instead? A stress ball, perhaps? Because this thing ain't over yet by a long shot.

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