Annexing land may change Chattanooga's face

Annexing land may change Chattanooga's face

May 17th, 2009 by Cliff Hightower in News

If Chattanooga annexes more land, the City Council might have to get bigger to ensure adequate minority representation, a councilman said.

Russell Gilbert said the nine-member panel might have to expand by one or two members, because Mayor Ron Littlefield's plan to annex several large tracts of land could bring thousands of white residents into the city.

"It will change and it will be looked at again," Mr. Gilbert said of the council's minority representation. "It will most definitely be looked at again."

The city attorney's office said any expansion of the council would require a City Charter change, which voters must approve.

Councilman Peter Murphy said some of his constituents have expressed concerns about how annexation would affect the racial makeup of some districts, which could affect election results.

"I've had constituents raise concerns about a 'whiter' city," Mr. Murphy said.

However, he said the city could make sure minority representation is addressed - without enlarging the number of districts - when redistricting occurs in 2011. The council will have sole responsibility for redrawing city district boundaries.

"I think expansion of the council is a mistake and unnecessary," said Mr. Murphy, who joined the council in April.

Every 10 years, local governments are required to redraw their district lines based on the latest Bureau of Census figures.

The City Council formed in 1990 after several residents who felt minorities were not represented fairly in the mayor-commission form of government filed a lawsuit. The residents won the lawsuit, and a court order established the current mayor-city council form of government.

Three districts were established to make sure they would be made up of a majority of minority residents. A fourth district was created to be a "swing" district. The minority districts are 5, 8 and 9, represented, respectively, by Mr. Gilbert and AndraƩ McGary, who are black, and Mr. Murphy, who is white. The swing district is 7, represented by Manuel Rico, who is white.

Mr. Murphy defeated a black opponent, J.C. McDaniel, in the City Council runoff race last month.

Mr. Littlefield has proposed annexing all areas now in Chattanooga's urban growth plan, which includes parts of north Hixson, areas east of Highway 58 stretching toward Ooltewah and communities butting up against East Brainerd. Most residents of the areas are white, figures show.

Residents on the fringes of the city can start reaping the benefits of city services such as fire protection if they are annexed, the mayor said.

A U.S. Census study of designated unincorporated locations showed that, in East Brainerd and Ooltewah, 86.4 percent of residents were white, 9.4 percent were black and 1.5 percent were Hispanic.

The population of the city is 60 percent white and 36 percent black, U.S. Census records show.

Councilwoman Carol Berz said looking at how annexation would affect the city districts is premature without having the 2010 Census data.

"Obviously, if you're going to annex more areas that are Caucasian the city's going to be more Caucasian," she said.

Mr. Littlefield said Chattanooga is becoming more diverse. Hispanics, Europeans and Middle Easterners are all moving into Chattanooga.

"This community has moved beyond when race was drawn on a map," he said.

Dr. Berz said many whites have begun moving downtown into once predominantly black neighborhoods.

"People of all races are living all over the city," she said.

Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Beck will be involved in redistricting county commission lines in 2010. He said he knows racial representation issues forced the creation of the City Council form of government in 1990.

But a lot has changed since then, he said.

"If it's going to be a black-and-white issue, we haven't progressed much," he said.