A former Hamilton County commissioner says the decennial redistricting is a prime opportunity for the commission to expand in size so that its members don't have to serve more than 40,000 residents each.
Two-term District 6 Commissioner Joe Graham, who was defeated in his bid for a third term in 2018 by current Commissioner David Sharpe, says the nine members of the county's legislative body represent more than twice as many people as any other Tennessee county that operates under the same rules.
The average number of people represented across the state by a county commissioner is 4,354 people, he says.
State law, Graham says, mandates a minimum of nine people on county commissions but allows for as many as 25. Knox County (Knoxville) and Shelby County (Memphis) are exempt from the law because their form of government is different, he says.
Graham spoke to commissioners at their meeting Wednesday after a presentation by the county's Geographic Information System (GIS) office, which will draw the redistricting maps that will be set over the next few months.
"This is the time to do it," Graham said. "Forty thousand per commissioner is too much ... The issues [from one side of a district to another] are completely different ... If you add commissioners, then the constituents of Hamilton County would be served better."
The commission is set to begin discussions about redistricting next Wednesday. Commission Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley said last week she hopes the completed process will be able to go to the GIS office by Nov. 8 and the Hamilton County Election Commission by Dec. 15.
Graham told the commission he preferred the commission double in size — to 18 members — but he told us Thursday he was "throwing 18 out as a suggestion." He said 13 or 15 might be more ideal because he didn't see 18 being approved. He said if a larger commission works and the county population continues to grow, the commission could add three or five members more in 10 more years.
"Hamilton County is growing in leaps and bounds," he said. "What we do today [with redistricting] lasts 10 years. We can't keep kicking the can down the road."
Following Graham's presentation to the county commission, Kelley Elliott, co-chairwoman of the Hamilton County Voters Coalition, addressed the commission on the importance of keeping redistricting open to the public. But before she addressed her topic, she said, "Thinking of adding that many more commissioners in such a short time is alarming to me."
We think that also could worry voters — some about whether a fair process for all constituencies could be worked out and others about how much more costs would be incurred with more commissioners and all that goes with them.
Graham said he wasn't worried about whether it could be done. He said the county's GIS has the "most sophisticated mapping equipment" available and that the GIS office could work up a sample map — whatever number of districts were requested — in 24 hours, or several days at the outside.
Smedley said she asked GIS — for the sake of Wednesday's presentation — to come up with a redrawn map with nine districts and one with 10. She said a 10th district made from the county's three fastest growing districts would likely be Republican and would not make the three Democrats on the commission very happy.
Graham, meanwhile, said the number of commission seats — no matter what is decided — should be an odd number so tie votes don't occur.
Neither Smedley nor Graham said they knew why the county had stuck with nine commissioners since the form of government's inception in 1978, when the county population was 281,300, about 90,000 fewer than 2020.
But the commission chairwoman told us expanding the commission "will be a topic of discussion," if nothing more than "to get our brain going and open to the possibility." Whether the nine commissioners would "go that route, I have no idea. Five votes [are] going to determine it."
An expanded commission also would mean an expanded Hamilton County Board of Education.
"It would mirror ours," Smedley said.
Hamilton County Commissioner Dr. Steve Highlander said during the meeting he had talked to officials in some Middle Tennessee counties recently and had noted their smaller number of constituents per commissioner.
"I'm not sure what the right thing to do would be," the District 9 member said, "but it's good that we look at [the numbers] and be aware of it."
Until he looked at the county numbers represented by each commissioner, Graham told us, he thought the idea of adding more seats "was nuts."
But, he said, "it's time."
Smedley said anyone concerned with the process can attend the redistricting meetings. They also will be livestreamed, will be available on the county's YouTube channel and will be audiotaped.