Hays commissioners pass controversial precinct map

By Brittany Anderson
Some Hays County residents — including two members of the commissioners court — are concerned with the new commissioners precinct map passed during the Nov. 9 meeting.
Map CC2, proposed by Pct. 3 Commissioner Lon Shell, passed in a 3-2 vote. Judge Ruben Becerra and Pct. 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe voted against the map. Shell, Pct. 2 Commissioner Mark Jones and Pct. 4 Commissioner Walt Smith voted in favor of the map.
Smith, Shell and Jones are Republicans; Ingalsbe and Becerra are Democrats.
Following the 2020 census, a Redistricting Advisory Commission (RAC) was established in the county to provide the commissioners with advisory input regarding commissioner, justice of the peace and constable precinct maps. The next commissioner precinct map will not be redrawn until 2030 in conjunction with the U.S. census.
The RAC was composed of members of the community appointed by the commissioners and included Hays County Democratic Party chairman Mark Trahan and Hays County Republican Party chairman Bob Parks.
Through the RAC’s efforts, two maps — SM2 and M4 — were finalized and presented to the commissioners during the regular meeting on Nov. 2.

The RAC M9 map. Photo via Hays County Redistricting Advisory Commission.

Following a Nov. 4 meeting with Ingalsbe, Hays County General Counsel Mark Kennedy and GIS Steve Floyd, Shell created and posted his CC2 map, including his initial CC1 map, to the RAC website to be considered during the Nov. 9 vote.
Ingalsbe said that the nature of the meeting was to look at the two proposed RAC maps and to discuss possibly adjusting some of the lines as concerns were brought up that the maps were not in compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Texas Guide to Redistricting.
“One of my biggest concerns was that it seemed like, ‘Gosh, we’re rushing this and it’s being done at the last minute,’” Ingalsble said.
Words like “transparency” and “gerrymandering” were used by members of the court and community to describe concerns they had regarding Shell’s maps.
Shell acknowledged that, per his interpretation of the Open Meetings Act, Ingalsbe was the only commissioner he made aware that he was working on CC1 and CC2. The other commissioners did not see the maps until they appeared in backup material for the meeting.

Shell’s CC2 map. Photo via Hays County Redistricting Advisory Commission.

During the public hearing portion of the item, Trahan said that the RAC’s “weeks of work” in creating the maps utilized legal consultation, were developed as a team in various workshops and were presented at community meetings for feedback.
Additionally, Trahan said that he believed map M4 was still the best for representing change in the demographic data in Hays County by producing two Hispanic majority-minority precincts in Precincts 1 and 2, is well balanced and uses clean, rational lines for distinguishing precincts.
“CC2 splits 24 voting precincts into 51 pieces and has received zero public feedback,” Trahan said, adding that attempts to sidestep this process reduces trust in governments.
Parks, however, said that the RAC, by “name and charge,” is an advisory commission, not a “final decision commission,” and that the decisions on the redistricting are left strictly to the commissioners.
“We [the RAC]did our job to inform the commissioners of the possibilities,” Parks said. “But they were then, and remain now, possibilities. All the time, us on the RAC knew that the final decision was up to the commissioners.”
Shell said that his concerns that led to the creation of CC1 and CC2 came from comments made during the RAC public meetings, as well as verbal and written feedback received from constituents. He said that the maps were not created with the intention of “packing” or “diluting” precincts, but to maintain the historical significance of the Hispanic voting age population in precinct 1.
Additionally, Shell said that he could not support M9 as he felt it broke up communities of interest, whereas the intent of his maps were to “contain some of them.”
“Understanding the timeline we’re working on, I could have just done nothing and accepted that those were the only two maps that the court was going to consider,” Shell said. “I wasn’t sitting here saying, ‘Let’s wait until the last minute.’ I let the RAC do what they did. I took the recommendations, I analyzed them on that Tuesday [Nov. 2] and I decided to see what I could do about that in the only way I can.”
Following both RAC maps’ failure to pass, the court moved on to vote on CC2. A small structural edit was made to the map during the meeting but otherwise remained unchanged.
Sandra Tenorio, chair of the Hays County Tejano Democrats, told the court prior to the vote that she is concerned that CC2 packs precinct 1.
“I appreciate the commissioner trying to protect Latinos by packing into Precinct 1, but in fact, it does not protect our interests,” Tenorio said. “I would appreciate it if somebody is going to ‘save us from ourselves’ they would ask us what we want. As Latinos, we are quite capable of looking at these maps ourselves and assessing what we think is right for our community.”
In his closing statements before calling for the vote, Becerra reiterated Tenorio’s point that it appears that Latino voters are being “shielded” and stuffed into one precinct, and again expressed his concerns that CC2 did not give the community any time, access or opportunity to weigh in.
“In the spirit of fairness and transparency we created the RAC, and then didn’t do anything that they said,” Becerra said. “It reeks of disrespect in many ways. It’s just unfortunate that we couldn’t come up with, as a body of five, a more palatable map for our voters than this.”

 

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Brittany Anderson graduated from Texas State University in August 2020 with a bachelor's degree in journalism. She previously worked at KTSW 89.9, Texas State University's radio station, for nearly two years in the web content department as a writer and assistant manager. She has reported for the Hays Free Press/News-Dispatch since July 2021.

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