Council supports ward drop

A Charleston City Council committee supported dropping one of the city’s 21 wards Wednesday evening.

Members of the Redistricting Committee were unanimous in their decision to introduce a 20-ward plan.

The dropped ward would be on the West Side. The new ward map still needs the approval of the full council before it becomes final.

Jo Vaughan, the consultant the city is using for the redistricting, said “drastic” population losses in neighborhoods on the north side of the Kanawha affect how the city can change wards.

“Unfortunately, the city of Charleston has lost a lot of population and continues to lose population,” she said.

Committee members decided to go with a proposed 20-ward solution because such a redistricting plan would avoid a ward crossing the Kanawha River.

“With 21, there was going to be one ward that had to cross,” Vaughan said.

The proposed cross-river ward in the 21-ward solution would have lumped part of North Charleston and the West Side in with a chunk of South Hills via the Patrick Street Bridge.

Committee members felt that was unacceptable, citing different needs in North Charleston and South Hills and the fear of a council member not being able to adequately represent neighborhoods vastly different from where he or she lives.

The committee met twice last fall, but opted to wait to make any decisions until after the Legislature addressed whether or not cities could remove wards, as state law was silent on the subject. The Legislature passed a bill to that effect earlier this year.

“In a perfect world, we could keep it like it is,” said Councilwoman Mary Jean Davis, an at-large Democrat who serves on the committee.

Ward boundaries must be changed by the 2015 election to ensure the populations of each ward fall within a given range following the 2010 Census.

Figures from the 2010 Census weren’t available in time for the last municipal election in 2011, but now that the numbers have been released, the city needs to change its wards by the next election.

Wards must be divided as evenly as possible, and the city is trying to make wards with populations that deviate no more and no less than five percent.

Using Charleston’s 2010 population of 51,400, a perfect population split among each of the city’s 21 wards would be about 2,447 people. For a 20-ward system, a perfect split would mean each ward would have about 2,570 people.

“I like the fact we’re talking about going down to 20,” said West Side Councilman Joe Deneault, a Democrat.

Just like in the fall, committee members expressed support for keeping a large council, saying it allows for greater interaction between council members and the residents they represent.

“Basically, everybody’s kind of serving their neighborhood,” said Bobby Reishman, a South Hills Republican on the committee.

South Hills Democratic Councilman Jack Harrison agreed. Harrison participated in the last redistricting process in the 2000s.

“I think it’s paid dividends for the city,” he said.

Dropping a ward may avoid more redistricting issues for the city after the next census in 2020 if the city continues to lose population, Vaughan said.

“I think going with the 20 actually considers where you’re going in the future,” she said.

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