Brookhaven will redraw its City Council districts before receiving U.S. Census data in an effort to have them set before this fall’s election. 

City officials said that because of Brookhaven’s newly annexed areas, redrawing the districts early with projected population data would be better for candidates and voters. But a redistricting expert says the city could open itself up to lawsuits if its projected data does not match the actual Census results. 

Every 10 years, every district in the country — local, state and federal — is redrawn based on the U.S. Census data for those 10 years. District populations are required by law to be about the same in size. Census data is fundamental to making sure the districts are as equal as possible. The law allows for a population variation of up to 5%.

The release of 2020 Census data has been postponed until September due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most governments are pushing back their decisions. The Georgia Legislature usually handles redistricting for congressional districts in August, but that date will be pushed back this year. But Brookhaven is especially concerned about large annexations that will likely mean significant changes to its districts. 

Qualifying dates for candidates who wish to run in the city election are Aug. 18-20. 

“This presents a conundrum for cities that do not control the Census or the elections,” said City Manager Christian Sigman in a press release. “In order for residents to know what district they live in, whether to run for an office or whom to support for office, they need to know where the district lines are.”

If the population projections end up being wrong, the city could open itself up to lawsuits, said Charles Bullock III, a University of Georgia political science professor and author of “Redistricting: The Most Political Activity in America.” 

“You would be sued and you would lose,” Bullock said. “The Census data trumps everything else.”

Bullock said it would be better to continue using the existing districts. 

“Then, once you get the new Census data, you could redraw, and you could even then maybe schedule elections again in 2022,” he said.

City Attorney Chris Balch said because the city knows one of its districts is out of balance with the others — the annexed areas in question were all added to District 4 — it would be best to redistrict now.

“We believe what we are doing is correct,” he said in an email. “We know District 4 is out of balance based on annexations. Not to redistrict would get us sued. Not ‘might.’ Would.”

At its Feb. 23 meeting, the City Council approved a $33,670 contract with consulting firm FLO Analytics to assist with the project. The team from FLO Analytics will combine information from U.S. Census data; the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey; state, county and regional population forecasts; and local land and building development records to come up with population projections, according to a press release. 

In the meeting, Balch said the city’s recent annexations were a large part of why it was proceeding without Census data. Because of the recent annexations of the Briarwood and LaVista Park areas, the city’s population will be different to the southeast. 

“We need to redistrict in order to make sure that we have one person, one vote across all four of our districts,” Balch said.

Balch said he did not know what the average population of each district would be after the process is completed, but he said he expected each district’s population to increase. 

City spokesperson Burke Brennan said that along with the recent annexations, Councilmember Joe Gebbia’s decision not to run for re-election also influenced the decision. To run for a City Council seat, a resident needs to know what district they live in, he said. 

“The district lines currently set when they qualify in August may change when we get the hard data from the Census in September, which is before the November election itself,” said Brennan in an email. “If the latter scenario were to become reality, it would be a lot more expensive and time-consuming to hold a special election to fix that issue than it is to hire a data analytics firm to try to figure it out in advance.”

There is no plan at this time to consider adding a fifth district, which would require a change to the City Charter, said Brennan.

FLO Analytics is expected to hold four public meetings during the redistricting project. No dates have been announced, but each meeting will be held virtually, according to the release.  

The process is expected to be finished by mid-May, and the council is expected to vote on the final district boundary proposal in June. Brennan said the council could table the proposal and vote on it later if they chose, but he expected residents should know what district they are in by the end of June. 

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.