Three of the five Chatham County commissioners effectively voted one of their colleagues out of office on Monday night.
In a hastily executed maneuver, three lame duck leaders–Chairman Bunkey Morgan and his allies Tommy Emerson and Carl Outz–voted in a 3-2 majority to redraw the county’s election districts, effective immediately after the Nov. 7 election.
The change means that District 1 representative Patrick Barnes, a citizen activist who was elected in 2004 and has been Morgan’s most vocal critic, has been redistricted out of the area he was elected to represent.
The change effectively prevents Barnes from seeking a second term in 2008, because his new district will not have another election until 2010, when he’ll have to run against political ally George Lucier, who will take office in December after winning the May primary and facing no opposition this fall.
The change also means that Morgan, the District 4 representative whom voters bounced from office in May, can run again in two years rather than four. Morgan and Emerson were defeated in their respective primaries, along with their ally Mary Nettles, a newcomer; Outz retired.
“Since May 2, we have had nothing but vindictive revenge, by three votes, against the people that voted them out of office,” Barnes said Tuesday morning, just nine hours after adjourning a six-hour-long meeting that drew hundreds of outraged citizens, 114 of whom signed up to address the board.
Protesters carrying signs with “Just say no to Bunkeymandering” and “The path of destruction continues” rallied outside on the lawn of the Pittsboro courthouse prior to the meeting, and then packed the hearing with a standing room only crowd that overflowed into the hallway.
“This public hearing tonight is a farce and a sham,” Commissioner-elect Carl Thompson told the crowd. “I’ll say it again: it’s a farce and a sham.”
Thompson, a former commissioner who unseated Emerson this spring, was among several African-American speakers who detailed how the new plan disenfranchises minority voters. Thompson also made a prediction: “Regardless of what the citizens say tonight, I’m convinced this board–a majority of this board–plans to go forward with this.”
He proved correct several hours later.
The new districts were drawn by a committee that was appointed, convened and completed its recommendations in less than three weeks this summer–and which contained not one representative from northeastern Chatham, where nearly half the county’s population is concentrated and where Morgan is least popular.
A former Republican who changed parties to run for commissioner in 2002, Morgan has maintained that he planned all along to complete the redistricting during his first term, partly in response to requests from county Republican Party leaders. But he first put it on the table just two months after voters ousted him in favor of Tom Vanderbeck, who will face Republican Karl Ernst for the District 4 seat this fall.
The redrawing of the district lines became official with the Aug. 21 vote; a second piece of Morgan’s plan, to switch from countywide voting (where all residents vote for all five commissioners) to district-only voting, is also on the table. That matter was also up for a public hearing, but was postponed due to the late hour. The change to district-only voting–but not the new district boundaries–must be sent to a ballot referendum. If approved by the commissioners, voters will have a chance to weigh in this November.
Barnes says the new board of commissioners can–and, likely, will–revisit the newly drawn district boundaries after the three new members are seated in December. But updating the districts was a prerequisite to putting the district-only voting proposal on the ballot this fall, the outcome of which is not reversible solely by vote of the elected leaders.