9/22/2004

City loses minority on council - Longtime councilman has plan for future
Shelby County (AL) Reporter, 9/22/04

By Fred Guarino

When the new Alabaster [AL] City Council takes office this October, for the first time in 28 years, the city will be without minority representation.

Bobby Lee Harris, the only black member of the current council, recently discussed the reasons behind his failed re-election bid and said he sees the day coming when the impact of no minority representation will be felt.

Harris said he blamed his defeat on a redistricting plan approved by both the City Council and the U.S. Justice Department as well as retaliation for his support of the city's recent eminent domain efforts. [emphasis added]

During this administration, the city of Alabaster approved a re-development plan for the Interstate-65, Exit 238 area where Colonial Trust Properties is developing what is being touted as the largest shopping center in Shelby County.

During the effort to obtain the land for the re-development area, the council initiated eminent domain proceedings against minority residents in the area to gain property for public use.

But Harris said he doesn't regret his support for eminent domain.

He said he believes there is a way to bring minority representation back with future elections through a system he calls "cumulative voting."

Incumbent Harris, of 102 4th Place N.E, was defeated for the Ward 1 council seat by Jerry Workman, 104 Selwyn Abbey, in the Weatherly community.

Ward 1 was redistricted by the City Council in September of 2003 to include 35 percent black, 63.56 percent white and 1.44 percent '"other" voting age persons.

Previously, in accordance with what was then federal law, the ward included a much closer ratio of blacks to whites with a 40.39 percent black voting age population, a 58.35 percent white voting age population and a 1.25 percent other voting age population.

At the time the re-districting plan was approved, Council President Rick Walters said consideration was given to use of natural boundaries, keeping neighborhoods intact and wards intact as much as possible as well as reducing the number of legal challenges.

He also said a proposal that would have included a 66.72 percent black voting age population majority in Ward 1 would have violated the "one man, one vote rule," which is current federal law.

Harris said the U.S. Justice Department approved the re-districting plan because of the contiguousness (actual contact of the land involved) in the district. And, he said, with that consideration, white residents outnumber black residents in the ward.

Harris said that with previous lawsuits and supreme court tests upholding contiguousness, the Justice Department had to approve the plan where the numbers fell.

But Harris has a solution for the future.

"I think there needs to be minority participation. I believe if we're going to teach our children in school how to live with one another and be inclusive, we need to fix the system where there can be minority participation on all local boards and in all municipalities," Harris said.

"I think one way you can do that is come up with a system known as cumulative voting.

"Under this system, everyone will have an opportunity to vote for one person or seven persons."

He explained that citizens could vote for seven different individuals, all running at large, or cast all seven votes for one individual.

He indicated that if minorities cast all seven of their votes for one man or one woman, there could be minority representation on the council.

"The top seven vote-getters, running at large, will make up the city council," he said.

Harris said one town in Alabama, Centre, already uses this system and received Justice Department approval.

According to the Center for Voting & Democracy in Takoma, Md., towns in Alabama with cumulative voting include Centre, Guin, Heath and Myrtlewood.

As to the second reason for his defeat, Harris said, "I do not regret my support for eminent domain.

"My reasoning is more people are going to be helped in Alabaster with the new development than would have been helped without the developments ... all people," he said.

"Jobs are going to available for the citizens of Alabaster. Conveniences will be available we did not have before. All city service will be improved from my support of eminent domain, and I can't wait to see that day happen."

Harris said no other blacks sought to run against him because the word had gotten out in the community that a candidate was going to run from Weatherly. And, he said, it was concluded that person would win.

"I think the greatest effect (of his council seat loss) is going to be felt when there is an outcry for minority representation," Harris said.

"When there is a killing or suspected brutality in a minority community, there is always an outcry. And there is an outcry for someone to represent us. That's when I see minority representation is going to be needed the most."



The Shelby County Reporter: www.shelbycountyreporter.com