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Judge will hear lawsuit over Washington County's new election districts

Zach Vance • Sep 13, 2017 at 11:26 PM

Five months after it was first filed, a Gray resident’s lawsuit seeking a stay on the Washington County redistricting plan will finally get its day in court.

Judge Beth Boniface will hear Dr. John Daniel’s case against Washington County beginning at 9 a.m. in Hancock County Circuit Court.

The case was moved to Sneedville after all available Washington County judges recused themselves due to conflicts arising from past county relationships.

Mayor Dan Eldridge, the entire County Commission and Washington County Election Administrator Maybell Stewart are listed as defendants in the filing.

Adopted in January 2016, the redistricting plan, which relied on 2010 U.S. Census data, will decrease the number of county commissioners from 25 to 15 and increase the number of districts from 10 to 15, placing one commissioner in each district.

That plan is scheduled to take effect after the 2018 general election.

Instead of waiting until the 2020 census, several commissioners elected in 2014 campaigned on reducing the size of the governing body to save taxpayer money, and followed through with creating a redistricting plan.

According to court filings, the Election Commission estimated the cost of the redistricting plan at $109,211.

Daniel, who hopes to run for a seat on that commission, not only believes the redistricting plan was unnecessary, but that it decreases county residents’ representation of “one voice, one vote” by decreasing the number of commissioners representing rural districts.

He also claims the new plan’s usage of 2010 data doesn’t address the current locations of minorities and is unable to address the true number of voters in a given precinct.

Washington County Attorney Tom Seeley will represent the county at the hearing.

“We are confident the court will rule that the County Commission’s adopted reapportionment plan complied with both the Tennessee Code and the state and federal constitutions,” Seeley said.

In the past, Seeley backed the reapportionment plan by citing state statute T.C.A. § 5-1-111, which seems to allow the redistricting at any time.

“T.C.A. § 5-1-111 requires the Board of County Commissioners to change district boundaries (or redistrict entirely) to apportion the commission into districts of substantially equal population at least once every 10 years. It further empowers the Board of County Commissioners to reapportion at any time it deems such action necessary to maintain substantially equal representation based on population,” Seeley said in a statement to the Johnson City Press.

Daniel has submitted multiple filings to the court to strengthen his case that the redistricting was erroneously completed and included acts of gerrymandering by Redistricting Committee members.

In a July response to Daniel’s suit, the county’s legal team denied every single allegation outlined in his suit, except for some general claims and statements of law.

The county has also filed motions to remove Eldridge, Stewart and the commission as defendants and for a summary judgement to be issued, which means the other party has no case because there are no facts at issue.

The county’s most recent response states, “the Plaintiff attempts to offer the Court a ‘shotgun scatter’ of irrelevant statements and opinions with the hope of creating confusion regarding the actual issue in this proceeding. This matter is governed by the process set forth in the Tennessee Code.”

Email Zach Vance at zvance@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP.

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