Hamilton County commissioners are debating adding as many as half a dozen new political districts in the county amid rapid growth.
In the 2020 census, Hamilton County's population grew to 366,207, up about 30,000 or 8.8% from the last census in 2010.
The population growth in the past decade was concentrated in the eastern part of the county, including the Collegedale and Ooltewah areas, disproportionately affecting commission Districts 7, 8 and 9.
A map of the Hamilton County, Tennessee, political districts from hamiltontn.gov.View
With each of the nine current districts — for each of which there is one county commissioner — representing more than 40,000 individuals, mapping experts and commissioners are now considering adding an additional district to create better representation.
"When you look at the fact that Hamilton County has 366,000 folks living here, and you split that up between nine districts and nine commissioners, that's a lot of folks per district," said commission Chair Sabrena Smedley, R-Ooltewah, whose District 7 is among the fastest-growing districts.
Population growth of Hamilton County municipalities
Among the 12 municipalities in Hamilton County, the fastest-growing cities and their 2020 census populations, are:
Collegedale — 11,109, up 34.1%
Signal Mountain — 8,852, up 17.2%
Ridgeside — 446, up 14.4%
Lookout Mountain — 2,058, up 12.3%
Chattanooga — 181,099, up 8%
East Ridge — 22,167, up 5.7%
Walden — 1,981, up 4.4%
Soddy-Daisy — 13,070, up 2.8%
Red Bank — 11,899, up 2.1%
Source: U.S. Bureau of Census
While Smedley denounced a rough draft map that would rely on "splitting" District 9 — saying it gives her heartburn — she said she was open to adding more districts, asking to see a draft map that would break districts down even further, into 13 districts.
District 9 Commissioner Steve Highlander, R-Ooltewah, also objected to the idea of dividing his district, calling for "continuity of communities."
"Whether we go to nine, 10, 11, 12 or 13 districts, I think we need to look at all angles, we need to look at every variable and see what's most fair for every single community," Highlander said.
Commissioner Warren Mackey, D-Chattanooga, said he would support as many as 15 districts, but opposes an even number of commissioners due to the possibility of tie votes.
Other commissioners think more districts are unnecessary.
Commissioner Tim Boyd, R-Chattanooga, said that having too many members would reduce discussion in general commission meetings because too many things would wind up in committees before being discussed by the whole body.
"All these rural counties that have more than nine commissioners, their mayors wish they didn't, because it's decided in committee, which decreases the number of people represented in major discussions," Boyd said. "Those committees bring it to the commission, and if you're not on the committee, you've not really studied the issue.
"With us being a nine-member commission, we do a lot of work outside of committee," Boyd said. "And it gives the public the opportunity to see what we're debating and what our decisions are."
Commissioner Chip Baker, R-Chattanooga, suggested the growth wasn't enough to justify new districts, comparing Hamilton County to Knox County — where there are 11 districts each representing about 43,500 people per district.
"If we [had] 10 districts, we'd be at 35,620. So even if we increased one more district, that would take our numbers down," Baker said, "if we compare ourselves to Knox, which we do a lot."
In making the decision, 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.
The commission must pass a resolution by December to allow time for the redistricting to be completed ahead of the 2022 county elections.
They will meet again at 1 p.m. Sept. 29 in the commission chambers of the Hamilton County Courthouse on Georgia Avenue.