As Gwinnett County officials kicked off a series of open houses to gather public input on county commission redistricting, there was one question that loomed in the background over the proceedings: whether the commission should be expanded.
That question is looming over redistricting in Gwinnett this year because of a recent attempt by Sen. Clint Dixon, R-Buford, to get Senate Bill 6 EX passed to expand the commission from four districts and a chairperson to nine districts and a chairperson.
That effort — which had no input from county officials — came to a halt this past Tuesday, but it wasn’t far from the minds of some people who attended the county’s first redistricting open house at the Duluth library on Wednesday even though county officials tried to look ahead.
“I did hear at a press conference that Sen. Dixon was looking to work with the Gwinnett County staff and Board of Commissioners for the local maps,” county Commissioner Kirkland Carden said. “I’ll take him at his word for it and (I’m) looking forward to working with him.”
The next open house will be held from 6:30 p.m. until 8 p.m. on Tuesday at the Lucky Shoals Park Community Center, which is located at 4651 Britt Road in Norcross. The open house will be hosted by Commissioner Ben Ku.
One question the county will have to look at is expansion. Dixon’s bill dealing with the commission may have stalled in the General Assembly’s special session, but it is expected the issue will come up again during the 2022 regular session, which begins in January.
Matthew Holtkamp said he supports the idea of expanding the commission to get the number of residents represented by each commissioner decreased, but he does not support making the board as big as Dixon proposed. Holtkamp lives in Buford but owns a heating and air business in Suwanee.
“Dixon has suggested nine, but I think that sounds (like) a little too much,” he said. “I think seven — probably adding three more — (would work).”
Meanwhile, Snellville resident Catherine Hardrick took a totally different stance on the issue. She wants the district lines to be draw with equity in mind to make sure no ethnic group is packed solely into one district.
“I don’t think it should expand, especially if it’s going to cost us $2 million to do so,” she said, referencing a cost figure that was mentioned during a Senate committee hearing on the legislation to expand the commission. “I’m willing to listen to a proposal, but tell me why.
“Give me the pros. I don’t see any pros, and as a taxpayer, $2 million — that’s just what we know it’s going to cost. What are those other costs associated with that growth that we don’t even know about?”
Attendees at the open house in Duluth this past week were asked which geographical area they most wanted to see kept intact within a commission district, including cities, zip codes, school clusters or voting precincts.
The county also presented maps that showed where the distribution of different ethnic groups, such as Asians, Blacks, Hispanics and whites, reside around the county. The current commission district map, as well as the district map from the 2000s, were on display as well.
Carden singled out an issue in the 2003 to 2012 commission district map where District 1 — the district he now represents — included a leg that dipped so far into neighboring District 2 that it nearly cut it in half.
“This is the kind of stuff we’re trying to avoid when creating the new maps,” said Carden, who said he felt the debate over expanding the commission would not impact the work of gathering redistricting input. “(The goals include) keeping communities together, keeping cities together, having a map that’s contiguous and most importantly, having a process that’s transparent, that solicits community input.”
State Sen. Michelle Au, D-Johns Creek, said the information the county is gathering will be helpful when the Gwinnett legislative delegation and the General Assembly as a whole look at proposed maps for the county.
Au sits on the Senate State and Local Government Operations Committee, which is the city that would consider local redistricting maps in the Senate during the legislative session.
“Since we were able to pause (SB 6 EX) and slow it down, I think that’s great,” Au said. “We have time to do this right and allow the commissioners to do what they were planning to do all along, which was to have a very considered, data-driven, open and transparent process by which any Gwinnett resident can look at the map, say what they want to prioritize and we can all see what these priorities are.”