Hamilton County commissioners approve adding two new districts to county map

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Hamilton County Commission Chair Sabrena Smedley spoke on her own behalf as well as on the behalf of Commissioner Katherlyn Geter during Wednesday's redistricting workshop.

The Hamilton County Commission voted along party lines Tuesday to approve a new redistricting map for the county that adds two more districts to the current nine.

The vote was 6-3 in favor of approving the new map, with Republican Commissioners Chip Baker, Tim Boyd, Randy Fairbanks, Steve Highlander, Greg Martin and Sabrena Smedley voting in favor.

Democratic Commissioners Katherlyn Geter, Warren Mackey and David Sharpe voted against the new map.

Before votes were cast, Geter, Sharpe and Mackey all expressed they would like to delay voting on the map presented to the commission at Tuesday's meeting.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Commission holds fifth redistricting workshop to discuss political boundaries)

Geter said community members did not feel the process had been fair and that she felt there was more work to be done before a vote.

She also said she thought commissioners of majority-minority districts were given the first opportunity to draw the districts they wanted when redistricting was last done 10 years ago - and she questioned why that wasn't the case now.

Geter said she felt some districts and commissioners were expected to "just take whatever has been given to them" while others were given better opportunities. She also said she wanted to keep Harrison Elementary School in her district, as well as all of the other schools that are currently in her district.

"It appears that other districts have been able to draw districts to benefit themselves or whoever, and they're satisfied," said Geter, who lives in Ridgeside and represents District 5. "We need to give it more time."

Smedley, chair of the commission, said she had to give up sections of District 7 that she hoped to keep, including the section of East Brainerd hit by the tornado - which she has repeatedly stated she would like to keep because she has worked on recovery efforts - and Collegedale.

Smedley said population changes made it difficult to draw two districts with a majority-minority population and therefore doing so had been the focus of discussions so far.

"As far as I can tell, I think all the focus has been on keeping minority districts," said Smedley, of Ooltewah.

Boyd said he thought it was a good thing the community had become more diverse over the past decade but said that population changes made it more difficult to keep majority-minority districts together. In his District 8, he said, the Hispanic population has grown 400% over the past 10 years.

"We as a community are seeing more and more diversity. I think that's a good thing, I really do," said Boyd, who lives in the East Brainerd area. "But there has been an incredible population shift in the last 10 years. The minorities 10 years ago were much more concentrated, and it was easier to draw majority-minority districts."

photo Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Hamilton County Commissioner Katherlyn Geter, D-Ridgeside, attempted to delay Tuesday's vote but was unsuccessful. She voted against the map.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Commission considers '11 district option')

Geter made a motion to delay the vote, which failed.

Sharpe, of Chattanooga, then moved for the board to consider a new proposed map he requested from the county's mapping unit. His proposed map featured 18 districts. Under it, he said there would still be nine school board seats, with two county commissioners representing each school board district.

"The idea of smaller districts means that more communities can be kept intact and can act on their own unique interests and better elect their own candidates," Sharpe said.

Geter seconded his motion, but it failed.

Sharpe later put forth another motion for an 18-district map that would not take into account commissioner residence. That failed as well.

Fairbanks, of Soddy-Daisy, requested a change to the map that would allow his District 1 to keep the entire community of Falling Water. To achieve that, he gave up the community of Flat Top Mountain to Baker's District 2.

After that change was made, Geter said she once again wanted to see the map changed to incorporate Harrison Elementary into her district. Highlander objected.

"Harrison has been in District 9 until the new building was built a year and a half to two years ago. Whenever possible, I think schools need to be in the same district as the schools they feed into," said Highlander, of Ooltewah. "Harrison is right next door to J.B. Brown. The properties border, and I think it has always been in District 9, right up until that new building was built. I strongly think it should remain where it has been, other than the last year, for the last 50 years."

Geter said the land the building is on is in District 5 and that families in her district were attached to the school. She also said losing Harrison Elementary would leave the district with only one elementary school.

"If we had more time, this would be a discussion that you, myself and the school board members could have and it could result maybe in a different way, but obviously we don't want to have that discussion," she said. "If I've heard from my district, and I know this is important, then I have to fight for that. For that reason, I want to see Harrison Elementary School put back in District 5."

(READ MORE: Questions arise about impact on schools from Hamilton County redistricting)

Geter made a motion to change the map to move Harrison Elementary to District 5 after some discussion, and that vote failed. Republican Fairbanks joined Democrats Geter, Mackey and Sharpe to vote in favor of moving the school, while Republicans Baker, Boyd, Highlander, Martin and Smedley voted against the move.

Martin then made an amended motion to vote to accept a new version of the 11-district map that includes changes discussed during the meeting. The public was given an opportunity to comment before the vote on that motion was taken.

Stefanie Dalton, who lives in District 2 and also serves as vice mayor for the city of Red Bank, used her time to say she understands the constraints the commission is under but wishes there was more time for discussion and debate. As an elected official herself, she said she believes it is vital for commissioners to get feedback from the residents living in the communities where the map was changed during Tuesday's meeting before making any final decision on that map.

"These changes have just been made within the last 30 minutes, and hundreds of voters have been moved around without having a chance to look at this and reach out to you all and let you know how they feel. This is an important enough process that you all really need to be intentional about the decisions that you're making and make sure that you're hearing from everyone in the community," Dalton said. "I would ask that you prioritize the people you're serving and the constituents who will be impacted by this. Please take your time with this. There's no harm in waiting."

(READ MORE: Democrats question transparency of Hamilton County Commission redistricting process)

The vote to amend the map to include changes from the meeting moved forward after public comment and passed unanimously.

Commissioners then voted on the resolution to approve the 11-district map and plan as amended. The map and plan were approved.

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.