Moran assures court Phillips’ concerns about redistricting unfounded

Editor’s note: This report reflects the work of reporter Brenda McWilliams who has followed the Smith County commissioners’ progress on redistricting. Since McWilliams spoke as a citizen during Tuesday’s public comment portion of the meeting, Vanessa Curry reported on the meeting to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.

Smith County commissioners unanimously approved a redistricting plan Tuesday that raised questions on whether at least one  elected official is more concerned with road mileage and voting blocks than equalizing precinct populations.

County Judge Nathanial Moran  assured the court Tuesday that the adoption of Plan B, which equalizes populations within the required 10% deviation, was not driven by those factors. 

“This decision here is not driven by politics at all or party lines,” he said.

The Plan B redistricting map approved by Smith County Commisioners Court Tuesday, Nov. 2. Red lines represent current precinct boundaries; shaded areas represent areas in the new precinct lines. Map courtesy of Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLP

Moving voting box 56 that includes The Woods subdivision was of particular interest to Precinct 3 Commissioner Terry Phillips. Phillips previously expressed a concern that moving the box to Precinct 2 would disrupt the Republican vote. 

Moran said Tuesday he reviewed the 2020 turnout in that voting district and evaluated it under the new district lines.

“The move is negligible, and in fact, the original concern expressed by Commissioner Phillips doesn’t play out,” Moran said. “There’s no movement at all, effectively between Republicans and Democrats.”

In a previous meeting,  Moran said he wanted Smith County’s redistricting process to be data driven. During a Sept. 28 meeting, the court adopted certain criteria to guide the redistricting process. That guide did not include balancing roadway mileage.

The judge also noted Tuesday that Precinct 3 already has the “lion’s share” of county roads and adopting Plan B actually would reduce that load by about 32 miles.

The 2020 census calculated Smith County’s population at 233,479, up from 212,764 a decade ago. Plan B leaves the county with an overall 8.04% deviation.

Demographics for each precinct of the Plan B map. Table courtesy of Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLP

The county map reflects changes between Precincts 1 and 4 which cover western Smith County. Specifically, redistricting moves voting boxes 44, 48 and 65 into Precinct 4. This is an area from north of Tyler Pounds Field to Lake Placid Road near Flint to the south.

Changes in eastern Smith County include voting box 22, located in and around Tyler Junior College, as well as portions of voting boxes 10 and 32 south of Farm-to-Market Road 850 in the New Chapel Hill area. The latter involves moving a portion of Precinct 2’s northern boundary into Precinct 3. 

Smith County Elections Administrator Michelle Allcon confirms that the approved redistricting map requires that voting boxes 10 and 32 be split. The county’s adopted redistricting criteria calls for using whole voting precincts, if possible. 

With Tuesday’s vote, the new redistricting takes effect on Jan. 1, 2023. Voters will continue to remain in their current commissioner’s precinct until then. However, candidates seeking office in 2022 can run for a seat under the new map, because the winner does not take office until 2023.

Redistricting workshops

Smith County officials worked on the redistricting plan developed by the Austin firm Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLP. Attorney Philip Arnold, who represents the firm, met with commissioners via telephone on Tuesday.

He previously presented the court with options for redistricting including Plan A and a revised Plan A to “clean up the plan a bit” by eliminating somewhat of a dog leg — a straight boundary line that drops to surround a small area and then resumes a straight line — in Precinct 3.

Commissioner Phillips initially opposed moving voting box 56 (The Woods subdivision) and debated the issue with Nix in a previous meeting.

“I don’t think it needs to be done if it don’t need to be done,” Phillips said. “Cause everybody’s precinct takes in a portion of town. I would have a very small bit of town if we are going to do that. 

“If it don’t need to be messed with, I don’t want it messed with.”

Phillips also expressed concern about county roads. Of the four precincts, his precinct — which spans the northern half of the county from east to west — has the greatest number of roadway miles — 510. Precinct 2, however, has 219. 

He urged court members to do something that would balance out the roadway mileage, noting that moving voting box 56 into Precinct 2 would not diminish his road responsibilities because “there are zero county roads in that (voting) precinct.” 

Nix disagreed, telling the court “it would be a lot simpler just to move 56.”

“I’ll let these guys (the court and the consultants) sort it out,” Nix said. “ I’m not looking at the roads, I’m looking at population.” 

Phillips later attempted to clarify his comments during an interview outside the courtroom.

“I just want to look at what’s best for the party, you know going forward, whatever is best for the party.” he said. “But after looking at it, I don’t think it would change the numbers that much. But the real issue with me was to possibly get road miles added to another commissioner’s precinct and off of mine. Once again, that has nothing to do with redistricting, but it is the only time that you can do it is during redistricting.”

Brenda McWilliams is retired after nearly 40 years in education and counseling. When not traveling she fills her days with community, charitable, and civic work; photography; writing and blogging at Pilgrim Seeker Heretic; reading, babysitting grandchildren, and visiting with friends. She enjoys walking at Rose Rudman or hiking at Tyler State Park. Brenda and her spouse, Lou Anne Smoot, the author of Out: A Courageous Woman’s Journey, have six children and seven grandchildren between them.

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Vanessa E. Curry is a journalist with nearly 35 years of experience as a writer, editor and instructor. She earned a B.S. degree in Mass Communication from Illinois State University and a MSIS degree from The University of Texas at Tyler with emphasis on journalism, political science and criminal justice. She has worked newspaper in Marlin, Henderson, Tyler and Jacksonville, Texas as well as in Columbia Tennessee. Vanessa also was a journalism instructor at the UT-Tyler and Tennessee Tech University. Her writing has been recognized by the State Bar of Texas, Texas Associated Press Managing Editors, Dallas Press Club, and Tennessee Press Association. She currently is working on publishing two books: "Lies and Consequences: The Trials of Kerry Max Cook," and "A Gold Medal Man, A biography of Kenneth L. "Tug" Wilson.