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Rep. Saine sent warning to board members

FRANK TAYLOR
Managing Editor

Outside pressure may have played a decisive role in the Lincoln County Board of Education’s sudden consensus last month on a new set of election districts for themselves, after months of division and consideration of 15 different proposed maps.
The Times-News had learned that N.C. Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, wrote to the board members on Dec. 9, to encourage them to approve a plan with “compact and contiguous” districts, which Saine deemed a constitutional requirement.
During their Dec. 14 meeting, the board unanimously approved Plan 13, which had received substantial support from members of the public who had appeared before the board during the previous month’s meeting.
Prior to that session, a significant percentage of board members had expressed support for other proposed maps, even though those had generally been criticized for having noncontiguous districts, so that a given might be made up of several parcels of land that didn’t touch in different parts of the county.
Saine’s letter made it clear that the Legislature could step in if the local board didn’t create proper districts, citing concerns that stepping in could be needed to avoid lawsuits over improper districts.
“It is neither my intention nor desire to interfere with your process,” Saine wrote. “However, should the district(s) you choose be unconstitutional, I may be left with no choice but to offer a legislative remedy.”
The Times-News discussed the issue of the proposed districts in November with Michael Crowell, a state elections law scholar with the University of North Carolina School of Government.  While he did not interpret the statute to say that the “compact and contiguous” standard clearly and constitutionally applies to local boards of education districts, Crowell observed that creating other districts would be outside of normal expectations and something that no other board in this state has done.
Which districts when?
Not addressed in Saine’s letter or the board’s action last month is the question of which of the new districts will be up for election this year, replacing the old ones that are expiring. Because the map is quite different, there’s not an obvious correspondence between the districts.
It’s clear that the terms of board members last elected in 2008 are ending. That includes at-large member Kelly Childress, North Brook Township member Tommy Houser, Lincolnton Inside the City member Ed Hatley and Iron Station Township member Dellinger.
While those members would need to match up with one of the new districts or the new at-large seat set to be up in 2012 in order to run for new terms on the board, it’s not clear that they will be able to do so.
With majority control of the seven-member board, those members could force elections this year in the districts in which members elected in 2010 reside, essentially forcing them to run for re-election two years early and vacate their current seats, or be reduced to lame-duck status.
Exactly which districts will be up for election when will be determined at one of the board’s upcoming sessions.
The legislature’s influence on the redistricting process didn’t begin with Rep. Saine’s letter.
His predecessor, former Rep. Johnathan Rhyne, sponsored the legislation last year that required the board to redistrict based on each decennial census. Under the previous plan, under which all current board members were elected, the board was elected from six districts based on geography rather than population.
With rapid growth in eastern Lincoln County during the more than 30 years since that consolidated district plan was approved, the board wound up with  only two of its seven members drawn from the eastern two townships, where the majority of the county’s people reside.
The new plan has five districts of roughly equal populations and two board members chosen at large.
Under both plans, the districts define where a board member must live, but voters countywide participate in choosing each board member.

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