DANVILLE — It's been 25 years since a Voting Rights Act lawsuit filed by black residents in Danville led to the city's mayor-alderman form of government. But census numbers show that the city has become more racially integrated since then, prompting discussion that some aldermen should again be elected at-large rather than by ward.
David Groves, a regional director with Blacks in Government, and a group of other community leaders recently met with Mayor Scott Eisenhauer and discussed the city's ward redistricting plan.
The city is looking at changing some of the ward boundaries because the 2010 Census revealed that populations within some of the wards are out of proportion, and the legal precedent is that legislative, county board or city council districts should be balanced in population.
The cities of Champaign and Urbana have already completed their redistricting processes and have new ward maps in place.
Groves said this round of redistricting in Danville likely will be the last time the city will be looking at a predominantly black ward, because the city is more racially integrated.
With the continued diversification of the city, it's difficult, he said, to keep Ward 1, the way it's situated, as the predominantly black ward.
"We need to look at changing," he said.
Eisenhauer said a review of the process for electing aldermen is needed. Eisenhauer said one idea is to elect one alderman from each of the seven wards plus three aldermen at large, which would also reduce the number of aldermen from 14 to 10. Currently, two aldermen are elected in each of the city's seven wards.
"The likelihood that a black candidate could be elected from a citywide election is much greater today than in 1987," said Eisenhauer, who added that the Danville school board has had several black board members, including Groves, who was elected to two terms, beginning in 2001, and was board president during his last term.
The 2010 Census shows the city's diversification since 1987, when the city's original ward map was established.
For example, in Ward 6, which is toward the north end of the city, the black population was 4 percent in 1987. Today, it's 22 percent, according to 2010 Census numbers.
Other wards reflect comparable increases, like Ward 4 on the city's east side, which was 14 percent black in 1987 and is 50 percent today, or Ward 5 on the city's northwest side, which was 5 percent black in 1987 and 20 percent now.
Much of the city's black population was at the center of the city in 1987, and that area generally became Ward 1, which had a majority black population of 53 percent at that time. Today, it's 48 percent black.
Danville's federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit asserted 25 years ago that the city's former commission-style of government, which elected all commissioners at large, was unfair.
A consent decree handed down by U.S. District Court Judge Harold Baker required equal opportunities for minority representation and required that the city be divided into seven wards with two aldermen elected in each. If the city were divided, "one of those wards would contain sixty percent black voters, which would make it possible for those voters to elect representatives of their choice," the decree states.
Prior to 1987, Danville had never elected a black person to the city council in its 60-plus years under the commission form of government, but under the new form, Danville's Ward 1 aldermen have always been black.
As the city's overall population has changed, city officials have remapped the wards to ensure the populations of the wards are comparable while also abiding by the order that one ward have a majority black population.
The 2010 Census revealed that populations within some of the wards had become unbalanced again. Generally, the northern part of the city gained population since 2000, while the center and southern portions lost residents, so city administration officials began looking to remap the wards this year.
Since 2000, Ward 1 lost the most residents, 476, for a 10 percent decrease, bringing its total population down to 3,887. In contrast, Ward 7 posted the biggest gain of 9.8 percent with 453 additional residents, bringing the total population in that ward to 5,043, about 1,150 more than Ward 1.
City administrators wanted to balance the wards at about 4,432, according to Chris Milliken, planning and zoning manager for the city. He said the goal is to get the wards close to that number within a range of about 10 percent.
"Overall what we're trying to do is push population south into the more southern wards to balance them out," he said.
In June, city administrators presented to the council a proposed remapping of the wards that would have made slight changes to Wards 1, 5, and 7 but would not have affected any current aldermen. That proposal would have shifted voting precinct 8 in Ward 5 to Ward 1. That precinct is 24 percent black and 64 percent white. That would have dropped the black population in Ward 1 to 44 percent.
After meeting with community leaders, Eisenhauer and city administrators went back to the drawing board and came up with four additional redistricting maps and again met with community leaders to discuss them. They agreed on alternative two, which would not unseat any current aldermen and make only slight changes to Wards 1, 5, 6 and 7.
Voting Precinct 2 would move from Ward 6 to Ward 5; Voting Precinct 31 would move from Ward 7 to Ward 6; and Voting Precinct 4 would move from Ward 5 to Ward 1. Voting Precinct 4 has a black population of almost 40 percent, so Ward 1 would maintain an overall 46 percent black population.
Ward 1 would also become the largest ward with 4,716 people, and Ward 2 the smallest with 4,080. The rest fall in the middle.
Eisenhauer and Groves both said balancing the ward populations and ensuring a black majority in Ward 1 has become more difficult now that the city is more diverse. Eisenhauer said it's also complicated by the census, which now includes a multi-racial category, meaning some residents who would have been counted in other race categories in the past are now counted as multi-racial.
Ward 1 Alderman Kevin Davis said he believes alternative two is the best option on the table, and it all comes back to diversity in the city. Davis said the city will never be able to create a map that will again have 50 percent in Ward 1. Davis also agrees that sooner or later, the city must consider electing some aldermen at large.
"It's probably going to have to be within the next 10 years," he said.
Groves said the most important issue is economic development in the city as a whole, and representation is only a part of it.
"We get so stuck on how many minorities we have at the table," said Groves, adding there's too much focus on what's best for individual wards rather than the city. "We should be talking about improving the whole city."
Danville wards, population changes, 2000-2010