Beaufort County Council’s third public meeting on the proposed redistricting changes was held Dec. 1 at the Hilton Head Island Recreation Center. It garnered a few more active participants than the same presentation conducted in Bluffton the night before, when only four residents showed up.
About a dozen islanders were in attendance and several let the council members know clearly what was on their minds.
Roselle Wilson has owned her home for 40 years, and has lived on the island full time for 10.
“I’m a Gullah girl, native of Savannah, Charleston, Hilton Head, Orangeburg, Georgetown, Sumter. My blood is in the soil. I live here now because I came home,” said Wilson. “I’m here tonight because I need to know what they’re going to do to change. I’m not sure what the county has in mind. I’m just coming to listen to see what they have in mind, so that if I have something to object to, I know what I’m objecting to.”
Thomas C. Barnwell Jr., who has lived on Hilton Head for 86 years, said prior to the presentation that he was concerned about changes he has seen since the state House of Representatives in 1955 moved to restrict the voting process for native people on Hilton Head. That is what he addressed after County Council Chairman Joe Passiment finished the redistricting presentation.
“I am concerned about the continuous changes that all areas of government make,” Barnwell said. “I understand very clearly that this is county council and not state representatives – but it’s a part of a similar process of diminishing the power of people of like kind, people of common interests. So that’s why I’m here.”
When the floor was open for people to make a statement, Barnwell was first to speak, and he continued his concerns.
“There have been major changes in the native island Black community representation. I understand the numbers must be met. I can live with changes but it appears that it’s been very drastic across the board. Not only with council, but board of education as well as the House district seats,” Barnwell said. “So my plea is please – as you and other council members make your decision – keep in mind that we appreciate all the newcomers, but we would love as much as possible to keep those of us who have been here, who have similar concerns and problems of drainage, education, as well as our political desire and needs, in the same district.”
Barnwell closed with saying that council members not only represent the district where they live but the whole county, which Passiment reaffirmed by saying that no matter who represents a county resident, that resident can address any council member, and seek their assistance with a problem.
Kathy McClellan, who ran for District 10 against incumbent Lawrence McElynn, said she knows the district well, having campaigned going door-to-door.
“I realize you have to have numbers, but what I’m seeing is you’re taking out Chaplin, which is a Gullah community, and you’re taking out another Gullah community near Squire Pope Road that was part of District 10, and adding a much more conservative voting block by connecting the rest of Hilton Head Plantation, which is 3,000 more votes,” said McClellan. “I don’t get why that’s happening, because if you’re talking about numbers, you’re adding more voters up there. So I don’t get why we need to break up one of things we need to consider, and that’s communities of interest, and I know that’s part of the state rules. … There should be other options, because we’re not talking about having to take people out of there. You’re adding more in. Maybe you can explain to me why that’s going to happen, because I don’t understand.”
Passiment explained that council forwarded certain directions to the county’s GIS department to create the redistricting maps. It took the two GIS staff members 21 days to create the maps based on their guidelines, he said.
GIS stands for “geographic information system,” a system that creates, manages, analyzes and maps all types of data. Those directions led to the two alternative maps based on the data available and the parameters set by the federal, state and council guidelines.
“Is it perfect? By no means. Is it the best we can do? Right now it is, until we hear from the community,” said Passiment. “Can we tweak it? Yes, we can, but we still have to meet the criteria. We have to make sure it’s contiguous. We have to make sure we’re dealing with the minorities. We have to make sure the communities are as close to the deviation mark as we can get.”
Beaufort County IT Director Dan Morgan explained how his team created the maps by using census blocks, which are “statistical areas bounded by visible features such as roads, streams, and railroad tracks, and by nonvisible boundaries such as property lines, city, township, school district, county limits and short line-of-sight extensions of roads,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Looking at the blocks is what we have to do now. It’s blocks of people’s houses. We went through the blocks, and started trying to put the puzzle together. Certain blocks – you may grab one, but there are smaller blocks in there, and you have to make it contiguous, so you can’t just take a few. You have to take them all,” Morgan said. “This is what we’ve been waiting for, hearing the comments and the feedback, so we can go back and try to get it tighter in some of those areas.”
McClellan added that it’s not just about numbers, but “it’s about community. It’s about people.”
“You’re absolutely right. We have the numbers. Now we’re taking a deeper dive into the communities of interest. What goes with what? What can we keep, what can’t we keep?” Passiment said. “So we’re going to do that over the next couple of days.”
McElynn stepped forward and said council had studied the maps, and noticed exactly what McClellan said.
“There was a boundary line established west of Gumtree and west of Spanish Wells Road that separated the historic Gullah community, and I characterized it as putting a stake through the heart of this historic Gullah community,” McElynn said. “And we recognize that that can’t stand. What we’re doing now, based upon the feedback that we have, is the data engineers – who are data engineers and not political engineers – are retweaking all of these numbers and moving these boundaries. But every time that you move a boundary you have to move another boundary because you have to measure out all of the populations. It’s simple, but it’s a little complicated.”
McElynn said he thinks a problem has been solved north of U.S. 278.
“We’re suggesting we move the boundary farther west to get back that area that we lost. But south of 278 and west of Spanish Wells Road is still a problem that we have to address,” he added. “We can resolve that problem by dropping the line that is District 8 down to District 9, and giving up some of that geography and some people there, I think we can balance it all out. We’re particularly on top of disruption to the historic Gullah community, and that cannot stand. We have to make the adjustments to keep that community intact, and we’re working on that.”
Patsy Brison, co-founder of the Coalition of Island Neighbors (COIN) and a representative for the League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Area, was the next speaker. Having already submitted into the record a letter from Kay Roshnow, LWVHHI-BA president, she then read a letter speaking on behalf of COIN.
While a large portion of COIN’s message was in agreement with comments already expressed about reapportioning the Gullah communities between two districts, Brison began by addressing objections to the process.
“Procedurally, the process has been less than exemplary and is not consistent with the promises made. The public was not given adequate time to review the proposed maps before the hearings scheduled this week. The maps were released to the public on Thursday, Nov. 25, at 12:42 p.m., about the time that most of us were sitting down to Thanksgiving meals,” Brison read. “Releasing maps over a busy holiday weekend decreases the public’s opportunity to inform themselves regarding a constitutional right of representation and a very important process. The maps are very difficult to navigate on the county’s website for the majority of people who are not well-versed in GIS mapping features.”
She continued with a specific note about splitting neighborhoods.
“The Gullah neighborhood around Spanish Wells Road should not be added to District 8, which is composed primarily of gated communities in Bluffton. … The Native Island community should have a representative who can focus on the needs of their community of interest. By splitting the Gullah communities between two county council districts you have diluted their voice, and significantly impacted their influence and representation within our county,” Brison read. She concluded by saying, “There is always time to do the right thing.”
In the LWV letter, Roshnow noted, among other concerns, that “In Bluffton, there appears to be no competitive districts in the proposed county council districts, except maybe District 9. Working class neighborhoods are segmented by being assigned to different districts but are primarily dominated by gated communities.”
A further LWV concern was noting that Bluffton’s Latin population is 4,048 (6.85%), according to the 2020 census, and the African American population is 2,330 (11.89%).
“What has been done to ensure that the concerns of these ‘communities of interest’ will be heard in county council,” she added.
Island resident Herbert Ford pointed out there were eight elements that needed consideration in order to carry out the redistricting process, but he wanted to emphasize the third item, that state councils “must comply with the Federal Voting Rights Act to ensure that minorities have an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.”
“Now it appears – and I could be wrong – that the attempt has been to ensure that the numeric value is agreed upon and accepted, but I am not sure that item number three has received as much attention as the numeric value,” said Ford. “I’m more concerned … about minority Gullah representation which has been ignored, quite frankly, for about 50 years. You mention that the county council represents all of us. Well, if we don’t have an opportunity to make sure that our vote and our interests are adhered to by county council, by separating us, we are not being listened to. What I am saying is if the data engineers are finding it difficult to put all of the Gullah natives together, there are five of us right here in the room that can identify where Gullah residents live to make sure that they are in one district as opposed to being dispersed throughout the community.”
Morris Campbell, a former two-term county council member who retired in 2015 as Beaufort County Community Services Director, has been through three redistricting processes.
“Our biggest concern is dilution of minority opportunity to have influence in the system on electing people to represent these communities,” Campbell said. “There is nothing wrong with looking at the opportunity to make sure we are not part of Bluffton. Not that we don’t like Bluffton, or we don’t like their councilman, but we certainly want the council to take seriously the comments that we need to be made whole on Hilton Head.”
Following the Hilton Head public meeting, county staff collected and took public comments into consideration as they re-evaluated and tweaked the alternate plans before presenting them to the county’s executive council on Dec. 6.
Passiment assured those in attendance that as the draft maps are tweaked, they will be made available on the county’s website, and further input would be welcome.
The maps will be presented to county council at the first reading during the council meeting at 6 p.m. Dec. 13. Second and final readings will be held Jan. 10 and Jan. 24.
The approved map will be forwarded to Columbia for approval and then returned prior to the first day candidates can file for the upcoming November 2022 elections.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.