Pressure on the Morgan County Commission to redraw its districts based on population rather than road miles is coming from many directions, and legislation is possible next year that would authorize the commission to draw new district lines.
“We can’t adjust our districts under state law. If anyone redraws the district lines, it ought to be the County Commission. But we don’t have authority to do it," said Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long. “We’re definitely going to be looking at it to see if we can get some legislation introduced.”
Population might be a factor if the commission revised district lines, Long said, but revised districts would also have to take into account factors like road miles.
The county’s district lines were last redrawn by the state Legislature in 1959, before the Voting Rights Act and at a time when county commissions had few responsibilities beyond road and bridge maintenance. Its population, now 119,000, was about 60,000 in 1959.
The population of the four districts is dramatically different. District 1, for example, represented by Commissioner Jeff Clark, includes Decatur, Trinity and Priceville, and encompasses 59.3% of the county’s population. On the other end of the scale is District 3, represented by Commissioner Don Stisher. It includes Eva and Falkville, and its population is 8.4% of the county’s total.
Morgan County is one of six counties in the state in which commissioners must be residents of their district, but are elected by voters countywide. At-large voting for district commissioners has been in effect in Morgan County since 1973.
Morgan is also is among a minority of Alabama counties that use a district road system as opposed to a unit system. This means each district receives roughly equal money each year for road and bridge maintenance, and each district has its own road crew and equipment housed at a district shop. Most counties use a unit system in which road funds go to an engineering department which determines road priorities and supervises crews countywide.
Long said changes to the district lines probably make sense, and balancing the populations among the districts might be a goal. Under current law, however, the six counties in the state with at-large voting for district seats have no authority to change the district lines.
Long expects the Association of County Commissions of Alabama to spearhead an effort in the 2020 legislative session to change that.
Sonny Brasfield, head of the ACCA, said the association will establish legislative priorities for 2020 beginning this month, and legislation that would allow Morgan County and the other counties that have at-large voting for commission districts will be considered.
“It is on the list of things for us to talk about with our membership,” Brasfield said. “The commission could redraw the districts if we amend the general law, and I don’t think there would be much opposition to that in the Legislature. I think that’s something that would be pretty easy to do.”
A state law already authorizes counties whose district commissioners are elected by district voters to adjust their own district lines after each census to ensure roughly equal populations.
Brasfield said the county could only switch from at-large to district voting for the four district commissioners if a local law is passed.
The pressure on the County Commission to make changes in its district structure has come from Decatur officials, the local legislative delegation and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Decatur officials have focused on finances, and the issue is a raw one this month as both the city and county prepare their fiscal 2020 budgets. The idea that the county districts are about the same size geographically but vary widely in population bothers City Council President Paige Bibbee, who said the end result is that the county commits too few resources to Decatur residents.
“Population is important,” Bibbee said last week. “Without that (Decatur) population center, it’s going to be hard for the county to survive. When that population center is not properly represented, there’s a problem. I think that’s what we see now. I think it’s time for a change.”
She was skeptical about whether statewide legislation allowing the Morgan County Commission to change its own district lines would address the city’s concerns.
“This sounds like a way to sidestep the problem,” she said, noting that almost all counties in the state are divided into districts of roughly equal population. “We need to do what’s right. I don’t like the idea of them redistricting at their will. That’s probably not going to be well received by the public. I think redistricting has to be done by a higher authority, either state government or federal government.”
She said the unfairness of at-large voting for district commissioners is particularly apparent in appropriations to nonprofit agencies that serve Decatur residents.
“The county has really backed off funding to nonprofits that are largely in Decatur but service people throughout Morgan County. The city has now had to shoulder their burden for most of those,” Bibbee said.
As an example, she points to the Decatur Public Library, which is open to all Morgan County residents. The city in fiscal 2019 gave the library $441,936, and plans to provide the same funding in fiscal 2020. The Morgan County Commission gave the library $65,000 in fiscal 2019, and a proposed budget calls for the same funding next year.
“At some point, if the county is not going to pay to play, then there’s going to have to be some kind of regulation on county residents using the library. I’m not saying they can’t use it, but they have to pay for a card, pay to rent the material,” Bibbee said. “I’ve spoken with several members of the council on this.”
She said another example is the Community Free Clinic of Decatur-Morgan County, which received $59,280 from the city this fiscal year and nothing from the county.
“A large portion of people who come to the Community Free Clinic are county residents. Currently they give zero dollars to that nonprofit,” she said. “That’s why you get sour grapes at times from the city, when we feel we’re funding things that are outside of the city limits, and then we also lack adequate representation.”
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, was part of a delegation that gave initial support to a local bill filed in 2018 by former Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle. House Bill 437 would have made Morgan County commission positions, except for the chairman, part time. It would have divided the four districts based on population, and would have required a unit system, with centralized engineering functions rather than four separate district shops. The bill failed after the County Commission unanimously opposed it.
Brasfield said dividing the districts by population rather than road miles or geographical size necessitates switching to the unit system.
“Y’all are on a district system. The money is essentially equally split among those districts. If you shifted to a different process, with districts that were more reflective of population, then that would necessitate a shift of the operation of your road department away from the districts you have now to a unit system. That is, you look at the county as a whole. You no longer split the money up into four pots. You work on county roads without regard to whose district they’re in,” Brasfield said.
In supporting House Bill 437, the local legislative delegation in 2018 emphasized the efficiencies of the unit system, which they projected would save the county at least $500,000 per year and could better prioritize projects.
“The overwhelming number of counties are using the unit system,” Orr said last week. “When I investigated it, I had county commissioners from other counties saying they didn’t know how they could operate outside the unit system, because it saved them so much money, rather than each commissioner having a shop and having their own foreman and staff in each district. The flip-side of that is that there probably is a more responsive level of service by a county commissioner who’s elected than just a county engineer who is not.”
While roads remain a major responsibility of county commissions, Orr said their responsibilities have expanded in ways that increase the logic of dividing districts by population.
“I think the commissioners have changed since the 1950s, when they used to be considered just road commissioners. The county commissions have a lot more responsibility in the 21st century than they did 50 years ago. Should the number of road miles be the sole factor as far as the size of the districts? I think there’s a case to be made against that 50 years later,” Orr said.
Brasfield said a switch to district voting and thus a unit system might have “unintended consequences” for Decatur residents. While District 1 has a far larger population than the other districts, it has more municipal road miles and thus fewer county road miles. It might therefore receive less funding under a unit system, not more.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is focused on minority representation, which it argues is diluted by at-large voting for district commissioners.
“While Black and Latinx people together are 18% of Morgan County’s voting age population, the commission has never had a minority member, nor have any minority candidates won any at-large elections in the county,” the Legal Defense Fund said in a February letter to the commissioners.
Orr and Long questioned whether the districts could be drawn in such a way to create a majority-minority district.
“I think the African American community has a reason to be concerned the way it is now, but I don’t think you could get a majority-minority district even if it were changed. If you divide the pie four ways, the numbers still don’t add up,” Orr said.
The Legal Defense Fund proposes changing that equation by eliminating at-large voting and increasing to five districts, which it believes could include a majority-minority district.
A spokeswoman with the Legal Defense Fund last week said “there is nothing to report yet” on its ongoing discussions with the county.
David Langston, a lawyer retained by the county, said talks are going slowly.
“We have involved counsel that specializes in Voting Rights Act matters, lawyers with Balch & Bingham. Those guys have had some talks with the NAACP lawyers. We’re in the process of exchanging information. There have been no formal proposals made by them, just some informal talks,” Langston said.