Published 12:00 am Friday, May 11, 2001

sues Vicksburg, 97 other cities

[05/11/01] In a confusing complaint, a Delta attorney has filed suit in the name of the NAACP against 98 Mississippi cities, including Vicksburg, over district lines used in municipal elections.

The complaint was filed April 25 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi in Greenville, but notice was not served on Vicksburg, a defendant, city attorneys said.

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It seeks, among other things, to have the terms for mayors and aldermen elected in the 98 cities shortened to six months, but names cities not having elections this year and refers to May 1 instead of June 5 as election day. Also, mayors are not elected by districts, but “at large” under municipal boundaries.

The suit also asks that new elections be held for all positions after city wards are redrawn based on newly available U.S. Census data.

“The existing redistricting plans in the defendant municipalities dilute, minimize and cancel out black voting,” NAACP attorney Ellis Turnage wrote in the lawsuit.

Turnage was not available to explain the case, but says in it that, “the governing boards of the defendant municipalities have been and are unresponsive to the particular needs, interests and concerns of the black community.”

Many of the municipalities, including Vicksburg, have majority black or all-black local governments.

State Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, said he was unaware of the suit until he was told about it and said it’s likely a tactical move.

“It’s just there so that if anyone is aggrieved they can join in,” Flaggs said. “But filing a suit and not serving notice on the defendants, I’ve never heard of that.”

By law, census information is used every 10 years to redraw district lines for all offices for which officials are elected by district. But because Census 2000 information became available too late for municipal voting this year, Mississippi cities are using ward lines drawn based on 1990 information.

As part of the case, the NAACP asks the court to enter an order declaring that all current district lines dilute black voting strength, stop municipal elections under the current lines and shorten the terms of persons elected on “May 1” to six months. May 1 was the date for party primaries. There is no mention of the June 5 general election date and no hearing has been set for the motion.

In Vicksburg’s four primary races last week, three of the four party nominees were black. Of the 10 candidates vying for three seats on the city board, six are black.

Turnage, whose office is in Clarksdale, could not be reached. Vicksburg’s legal staff said it has not received official notice of the complaint, but did request a copy for review to see if any action is needed.

If a hearing is held and the NAACP motion is granted, Vicksburg and other cities named in the complaint could be required to hold city elections again in December. In 1992, a federal judge ordered legislators to run in back-to-back elections because of concerns about the “one-man, one-vote” principle outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court. That principle says districts must be as equal in population as possible. Mississippi also operates under the Voting Rights Act, meaning districts can’t be drawn to discriminate against minorities. The act also requires that all voting-related changes, including new district lines, be approved by the U.S. Justice Department before being used.

Due to the timing of the census and this year’s election, the Mississippi Legislature passed a bill in January to allow nine cities to hold elections in wards as they exist now and redraw ward lines in time for their 2005 city elections. Vicksburg did not join that legislation with officials saying it is not required by law to redraw ward lines before the election because it is under a special charter form of government.

All of the cities named in that law, Jackson, Tupelo, Bay St. Louis, Greenwood, Gulfport, Hattiesburg, Meridian, Biloxi and Laurel, are also named in the NAACP suit along with Rolling Fork, Utica and Port Gibson.

Municipal elections were held in Port Gibson last summer.

The complaint also names the Democratic Executive Committees and the election commissions in each of the 98 cities. The Republican Executive Committees are not named.

The lawsuit states that, “the use of the existing redistricting plans in the defendant municipalities to elect city council, board of aldermen, commissioner and municipal executive committee members have caused and are causing immediate and irreparable harm and injury to plaintiffs and members of the black race by denying them an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect municipal candidates of their choice to public office.”

In Vicksburg, the line between the two wards, drawn after the 1990 census, was designed to comply with the “one-man, one-vote” principle, meaning all districts should be as close to equal in population as possible.

Shortly after the ward lines were drawn in 1990, the city annexed about 20 square miles of new territory, which was not included in the original calculations for the districts.