Hamilton County Commission considers '11 district option'

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Hamilton County Commissioner Katherlyn Geter speaks at a news conference on the steps of the Hamilton County Courthouse in this June 2020 file photo.

After previously debating adding as many as half a dozen new political districts due to growth in Hamilton County, county commissioners indicated at their Wednesday redistricting workshop they are focusing on an "11-district option."

Commission Chair Sabrena Smedley said an 11-district option would account for the nearly 9% growth in population since the 2010 census and be more "cost effective" than splitting the county into 13 or more districts, because it would not require any renovation of commission chambers. Instead, she said, County Attorney Rheubin Taylor and County Mayor Jim Coppinger could sit elsewhere during meetings, freeing up two seats on the dais that would be needed for new commissioners if such an option were to pass.

(READ MORE: Redistricting could spawn 10th Hamilton County district)

"This is an 11-district option. It is not a proposal, but an option," Smedley said. "I think it is the most cost-effective approach if we're going to increase districts at all to the county because we wouldn't have to renovate these chambers because attorney Taylor and the county mayor could take a seat a little lower, maybe, and we would already have the two extra seats up here. We have a fiscal responsibility to think of the cost."

Commissioner Tim Boyd, R-Chattanooga, said he felt the 11-district option was a better alternative to plans that divided the county into even more districts.

"I would encourage everyone to take into account what attorney Taylor said a week or two ago about our growth and keeping everything in perspective as to what our population is today, rather than looking out five or 10 years into the future," Boyd said. "The 11-district option seems reasonable to me with our growth right now. It's not a giant step. It's a reasonable step to go to 11 districts. I've thought about this quite a bit and this seems like a very reasonable option considering where Hamilton County is going. With all the options that have been put on the table, this one far exceeds the other ones, in my mind."

All the other commissioners agreed they would like to explore moving forward within the 11-district framework, pending a few minor tweaks to ensure majority-minority districts are maintained and communities such as Red Bank and Collegedale remain whole, rather than being "split" into multiple districts. Commissioner Katherlyn Geter also stressed the importance of keeping Tyner Academy and Tyner Middle in District 5, which she represents.

"I am open to the 11-district option based on the comments I've already made," Geter said. "There are going to be things some of us are unable to maintain in each of our districts. In District 5 we are willing and realize we can't keep everything, but we do want to keep those high-priority areas like Tyner. Maintaining that is very crucial."

Commissioners Warren Mackey and Steve Highlander said they also felt it was important to keep those schools within their "historic district."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County commissioners to begin redistricting process Wednesday)

In addition to Tyner, Geter requested keeping Harrison Elementary School within District 5 if possible.

Commissioner Steve Highlander said he thought two new school board positions should be created to correspond with the two new districts if the county were to move forward with the 11-district option, and he asked whether that would be required by law.

Taylor said that while there is a state law that refers to school districts mirroring county commissions as they were in 1992, nothing prohibits the county commission from being larger than it was in 1992.

"Right now we believe that the school board is presently limited to nine," Taylor said. "It would take active legislation to change that, but it does not in any way prohibit this body from exceeding the number of nine."

Smedley said she would want commissioners to consult with the school board and offer them an opportunity for input before moving forward with the idea of increasing the number of board positions.

When making redistricting decisions, commissioners are required by law to follow four guidelines:

- Statistically and physically preserve the viability of existing majority-minority districts.

- Make a reasonable effort to keep any district from falling more than 10% below the ideal population per commissioner - which is found by dividing the population by the total number of commissioners.

- Construct districts exclusively from census blocks.

- Ensure districts are contiguous and compact with no overlap.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County DA appears before commission, keeps funding)

The commission must pass a resolution by December to allow time for the redistricting to be completed ahead of the 2022 county elections. On Wednesday, commissioners said their goal was to have a resolution ready for a vote by Nov. 17, though one could be voted on until Nov. 30.

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