Reapportionment may mean big changes for local government

By Stephen S. Glass
STAR STAFF

   Reapportionment committee members reached several decisions Monday night that may literally alter the political landscape of Carter County this upcoming election year. The committee's proposals would change not only the number of voting districts in the county, but also the number of commissioners, school board members and constables.
   Committee members began the night by reviewing several unworkable plans scrapped from an effort to retain the current number of commissioners and districts in the county. According to State/Local Planner Albert Teilhet, it would be next to impossible using new census numbers to give citizens equal representation in county government while maintaining the present system of eight districts and 24 commissioners.
   According to Teilhet, the state requires a minimum 10 percent standard deviation in the number of citizens per voting district. The present mean deviation for the county is 14.9 percent. Other plans attempted by Teilhet and his staff using the same number of commissioners and districts showed mean deviations as high as 18.9 percent.
   An alternate plan of seven districts and 21 commissioners presented by Teilhet worked mathematically, with a deviation of only 8.9 percent, but committee members felt that the restructuring of voting precincts predicated by the plan would result in confusion and frustration among voters.
   Although Teilhet has access to computer programs designed to aid in the sometimes agonizing process of reapportionment, committee members last night opted to confront the problem the old-fashioned way -- with maps and pens and a calculator loaded with yards of tape. After a mere three hours of head-scratching deliberation -- during which Commissioner Phil Nave called out precinct names and numbers like a bingo master -- the committee reached a proposal that they believe will work, provided that nothing was overlooked and that the plan can meet the approval of the full county commission.
   The new plan calls for a reduction in the number of districts in the county from eight to five. The number of county commissioners would also be reduced -- from 24 to 15.
   The committee also voted to recommend the proposed districts be used in the election of school board members, a measure that would lower the number of seats on that council from seven to five.
   Commissioner Brad Green said that he continually hears complaints from voters concerning the present system of separate districts for the election of commissioners and school board members.
   "People want to be able to do all of their voting in one place," said Green. "This would solve that problem."
   The committee will also suggest that the number of constables in the county be dropped from 16 to five. State law dictates that the county is allowed only half as many constables as county commissioners. County Executive Truman Clark recently told the committee that the county -- having 16 constables and 24 commissioners -- is well out of compliance with the law.
   According to committee members, the five-district plan would require almost no restructuring of precinct lines. The Gap Creek and Happy Valley precincts would constitute one district. The Elizabethton High School precinct along with West Side, Central, Range and Watauga would create a second. Midway, Keenburg, Unaka, Hunter and Siam would be joined to make a third. A fourth district would be organized by joining the East Side, Harold McCormick, Valley Forge and Courthouse precincts. Elk Mills, Roan Mountain, Tiger Valley, Little Milligan and Hampton would be a fifth district.
   Clark said that minor changes in two or three precinct lines may be necessary to even out the numbers, but committee members seemed satisfied that the plan would not create a hassle for voters.
   Committee members discussed sending voters from Minton Hollow -- presently in the Courthouse precinct -- to vote at Hunter. Election Commissioner Tracy Harris said that a number of voters from Minton Hollow had expressed a desire for the change even before reapportionment began.
   Teilhet said that he would review the proposal and possibly look at other options before getting back with the committee later this month.