Late census data to impact redistricting

Delayed numbers will cause short window before new filings, commissioners told

Bill Spinks
Waxahachie Daily Light
Attorney David Mendez of the Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLC law firm out of Austin briefs the Ellis County Commissioners’ Court on the redistricting process during Tuesday’s regular meeting.

The delayed release of 2020 U.S. Census numbers will create a time crunch on redistricting and election obligations for Ellis County and many other jurisdictions, county commissioners were warned during Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Commissioners’ Court.

David Mendez, a partner with the Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLC law firm out of Austin which consults in governmental redistricting matters, informed commissioners that the U.S. Census Bureau won’t release data until about Sept. 30, largely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We would normally already have the data and I’d probably be presenting you with an initial assessment as to where your four county commissioner precincts are right now in a typical year,” Mendez said. “This is my fourth redistricting cycle, and this is the first time this has ever happened for counties and cities in Texas.”

For counties, Mendez said, primary elections drive the redistricting schedule. Mendez said his experience is that it normally takes about 90 days to go through a redistricting cycle. However, the delayed release of census data will allow counties only a month and a half to finish redrawing their boundaries based on new census figures. That’s because election filings for county offices that are up for re-election in 2022 will begin in November.

Mendez noted that the Texas Legislature is considering whether to push the 2022 primaries back to midsummer, well after the May elections, in order to allow more time for counties to finalize redistricting.

Redistricting normally takes place following each decennial census, in order to redraw boundaries to balance out changes in population and comply with the “one-person, one-vote” principle required by the U.S. Supreme Court and applicable civil rights law.

The timeline for a typical redistricting cycle usually involves redistricting the Commissioners’ Court first, followed by cities and school districts that have single-member districts. Mendez said by the time counties redistrict their commissioner precincts, the legislature would’ve already set boundaries for the state House and Senate, and those boundaries would be incorporated into the county’s election precincts.

However, the upcoming redistricting cycle will be different in that all the work will have to be done at the same time because of the tight window, Mendez told the court. Mendez said cities and school districts must be redistricted by mid-January in order to meet the filing period for the May 2022 elections.

Mendez said the process should be straightforward once the numbers are in, with a preliminary map ready for review by November. Mendez said the job of balancing precincts in Ellis County will be easier because the county does not have coterminous precincts.

“This is going to be challenging, but it’s doable,” Mendez said.

Following an executive session later in the meeting, the court approved an engagement agreement with the Bickerstaff firm to provide redistricting services following the release of the census.

All four commissioners and County Judge Todd Little were present.

Other items

• Commissioners approved the temporary use of the Waxahachie Civic Center as an auxiliary courthouse for jury trial proceedings through Dec. 1, at the request of County Court at Law No. 1 Judge Jim Chapman. Judge Little said the county will lease the civic center for $1,000 per day for no more than two or three days per month. Little said the Civic Center will provide a safer, socially-distant environment for jury trial proceedings.

• A new specialist position was created for the county Office of Emergency Management. County emergency management coordinator Samantha Pickett said her office has been inundated with responses to COVID-19, and the knock-on effects of that has put her office in a bind in terms of applying for grant reimbursements and responding to other potential emergencies. “We really need the help at this moment,” Pickett told commissioners.

• The approved consent agenda included approval of regular bills, officers’ reports and previous minutes; an interlocal cooperation contract with Waxahachie ISD; an authorization of a contract for scanning services; several routine budgetary line item transfers; and salary supplements for county attorney office employees Bryan Norris, Stacey Auvenshine and Jake Hefferman.

• A variance was granted to a 3.154-acre property on the south side of Gibson Road in the extraterritorial jurisdiction of Waxahachie, allowing for one lot to not meet the minimum road frontage requirement of 150 feet. The lot is being subdivided into four lots, but county planning and development director Alberto Mares said a recent adverse possession discovery with an adjoining property is bringing the total frontage short, leading to the variance request.

• A previously conditionally-approved plat of two lots containing 4.397 acres at the northeast corner of Shaw Road and Cooke Road in the ETJ of Ennis was denied after the applicant decided not to comply with the stipulated conditions and move forward with his original request. Mares said the conditions involved improvements recommended by the Rockett Special Utility District.

• An annual update of the county’s fixed asset inventory was approved at an expense of $20,000. County purchasing agent E.J. Harbin said this inventory includes all items in excess of $5,000 value, as well as what Harbin termed “volatile” items valued between $500 and $4,999. Those items include computers, monitors, weapons, furniture and communications equipment. Harbin said the county has worked hard this year to account for all these items that hadn’t been previously inventoried before.

• Three 2022 Mack Pinnacle dump trucks were purchased from Grande Truck Center at a $466,723 amount for Road and Bridge Precinct 1.

• Also approved were freight charges for WebEx equipment for each of the four Justice of the Peace precincts for $1,540 total.

• Commissioners approved quarterly disbursement of Ellis County Child Abuse Prevention Fund monies to both CASA and the Ellis County Children’s Advocacy Center equally.

• The court approved a resolution supporting pending state legislation that would allow trucks to carry excess weight on designated routes.

• Following the executive session, the court approved the submission to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for four new municipal utility districts, or MUDs: Ellis County MUD FM 984; and Lakeview MUDs No. 1, 2, and 3. The applications have an associated 180-day review and processing time frame.