A state Senate committee on redistricting met for the first time Wednesday to discuss the process of redrawing legislative maps from the new census data. But, partisan bickering about the legitimacy of the process dominated the meeting.
That's because questions remain over the Republican leadership’s decision to create a new redistricting office. Previously, an independent institute at the University of Georgia oversaw redistricting.
Evidence of the disagreement was on display at the meeting. Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat, raised questions about one of the office’s aides, Dan O’Connor. But the committee, which is controlled by Republican lawmakers, declined to make his background public.
“Mr. O’Connor is either being paid now or will be paid by public dollars," he told Senate colleagues on the committee. "I don’t want to know what he had for lunch and I don’t want to know what his favorite football team is. All I want to know what his public functions have been prior to his being hired.”
O'Connor was at the meeting. Reached by phone later, he said he is transitioning to his position on the redistricting staff. He works now as an aide to the legislature's Natural Resources Committee.
Democrats and watchdog groups have complained about the new office because it will allow committees of lawmakers to oversee the redrawing of district maps. Tracey-Ann Nelson of The League of Women Voters of Georgia says previously there was no question that the independent institute at the University of Georgia was nonpartisan.
"Our concern is that there is not a level of academia or transparency in place as a result of the University of Georgia’s contract not being renewed," she said in an interview last month. "You know, some may say, ‘Well it doesn’t make a difference. They are using the same people.’ But the accountability process is different.”
But House Committee Chairman Roger Lane, a Darien Republican, says the new system will save costs. And he reiterated that many of the same UGA employees are involved in the process.
“The committee that decides state contracts decided in the long run we may save money bringing it in-house, having all the people in that office working for the legislature and when redistricting is all over, we can downsize somewhat and not be held to that long-term contract,” he said in an interview last month.
Republicans have also countered that when Democrats were in control, they used their advantage when redrawing district maps. In a letter to a Democratic lawmaker who complained about the process, Senator President Pro Tempore, Tommie Williams, a Lyons Republican, said that staff members of the Democratic Party had a hand in redrawing legislative maps after the last census was released.
He wrote that the Democratic Party oversaw the process "with no input from any member of the Republican minority at the time," according to the letter, which he sent in February.
Legislators typically hold the redistricting session in August. It will cost the state $3.8 million.