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Charleston City Council considers eliminating ward

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charleston City Council's Committee on Redistricting will consider eliminating one of its 21 wards, following that committee's first meeting Wednesday night.

The first draft of the proposed redrawn ward boundaries kept all 21 wards, but council members raised concerns about how those boundaries would have to be drawn, specifically in Ward 1, which was redrawn to include parts of North Charleston and the South Hills via the Patrick Street Bridge.

However, another possible redistricting scenario would not cause a ward to span the Kanawha River, but would result in dropping one ward. That plan was not presented to the committee initially, but committee members said they wanted to see the 20-ward plan before making a decision.

The new proposals were created by Jo Vaughan, an independent consultant who helped the city with its last redistricting in 2006.

Vaughan said if the city decides to redistrict now, it needs to do so in a set time period to allow Kanawha County to redraw voting precinct lines.

Boundaries for city council wards must be changed in time for the next city election in 2015 because of population shifts. Wards must be divided as evenly as possible, and the city is trying to make wards with populations that deviate no more and no less than five percent.

That means using Charleston's 2010 population of 51,400, each of the city's 21 wards should have 2,477 people. A five percent deviation either way means city wards should contain 2,326 to 2,570 people.

2010 Census figures weren't available in time for the 2011 municipal election, but now that the numbers have been released, the city needs to change its wards for the 2015 election.

"We're not in compliance right now," City Manager David Molgaard said.

Currently, Wards 1 in North Charleston; Wards 3, 4, 5 and 8 on the West Side; Ward 7 in Edgewood; Ward 9 on the East End and Ward 10 in downtown and the East End lost enough population to make them non-complaint.

On the other hand, Ward 11 on the East End; Ward 12 in the Oakridge Road area; and Wards 14 and 15 in South Hills all gained enough population to put those areas out of compliance.

Therefore, wards need to expand or contract to make them even.

But to keep neighborhoods of interest together, council members wanted to examine the 20-ward option.

At-Large Councilman Jerry Ware, a Democrat who serves on the redistricting committee, said any redistricting should consider neighborhoods. He cited the proposed Ward 1 in the 21-ward plan, which put South Hills and North Charleston residents in the same district.

"You've got higher-income people in that area and lower-income on the other side (of the river)," he said.

Ware also said redistricting should keep in mind areas with higher and lower voter turnout, so as not to disenfranchise residents of one neighborhood over another.

One problem with redistricting is that areas moved to different wards need to be "closed," meaning city blocks can't be cut in half, Vaughan said. That works easily in the flat parts of the city, but is more difficult in the rural and hillier areas.

In light of population changes, some council members think dropping a ward might be the best option.

"Twenty actually makes more sense, numbers-wise," said Councilman Bobby Reishman, a South Hills Republican who is also on the redistricting committee.

At-large Democratic Councilman Andy Richardson, who is not on the committee but still attended, said he, too, felt it would be prudent to reduce the size of council by one.

"The population of our city has decreased ... and we have two more wards than we did in 1960.

Molgaard said the city dropped a council seat in the 1960s, which gives precedent for the city to do it again.

Vaughan said state law is silent regarding eliminating wards.

Charleston's 27-member city council is the largest in the state, and is much bigger than councils in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus. It's also bigger than the District of Columbia Council; legislatures of U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam; and the senates of Nevada, Alaska, Delaware, New Hampshire and Hawaii.

In part, council is so large because it is neighborhood-based, Reishman said. That gives each neighborhood a say in city government.

"It has actually worked very well having a large council," he said during the committee meeting.

Charleston's population peaked at about 85,000 people in the 1960s, but has declined in every Census since.

During the years Charleston was growing - and then after - the city continued to add wards. According to city code, there were 17 wards in 1929 and 19 by 1958. The city dropped a ward in 1966, but then added two more in 1982 before arriving at the current 21.

In addition to the 21 ward-based seats, there are also six at-large members. There are 14 Democrats, 10 Republicans, one Mountain Party and one Independent.

According to city code, "each member of the city council shall receive the sum of $200.00 per meeting, with a maximum yearly compensation of $5,600.00, with payments conditioned upon the councilmember's being present."

The nine-member Committee on Redistricting was formed at an October city council meeting at Mayor Danny Jones' request.

Councilman Brent Burton, a South Hills Republican, is the committee's chairman. Other Republicans on the committee include Bobby Reishman (South Hills, Ward 17), Mike Stajduhar (West Side, Ward 7) and John Miller (Kanawha City, Ward 18).

Democrats include Jack Harrison (South Hills, Ward 14), Sam Minardi (South Hills, Ward 16), Shannon Snodgrass (Oakridge Road area, Ward 12), and Mary Jean Davis and Jerry Ware (both at large).

In addition to those on the committee, other council members attended, including Richardson, South Hills Ward 13 Republican Councilwoman Susie Salisbury, downtown/East End Ward 10 Democratic Councilman Robert Sheets, East End Ward 9 Independent Councilman Cubert Smith and West Side Ward 6 Democratic Councilman Ed Talkington.

The committee will meet next at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 13 at City Hall.

Contact writer Matt Murphy at Matt.Murphy@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817.


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