After a decade of booming population growth, Johns Island may get its own representative on Charleston City Council.
But making that change could cost a sitting council member their seat.
The island is now in District 5, which also spans much of outer West Ashley. It is represented by Councilman Karl Brady, who lives in West Ashley.
Two newly proposed City Council district maps make Johns Island its own district without any extension into West Ashley. That means the City Council member to represent it would have to live on Johns Island.
"There is no one on council right now that drives our roads every day, sends their kids to school here, works here or lives here," said John Zlogar, chairman of the Johns Island Task Force.
The group was established in 2013 to bring together residents and local officials to address Johns Island-specific issues.
While Zlogar said he has no issue with Brady, he said he would like to have a council member who can put their sole focus on the island.
"We will feel like we have someone that has our voice," he said.
The island, which is partially within the city of Charleston and partially within unincorporated Charleston County, has deep roots in agriculture and the city's Black history. Several Black family farms have run their businesses on the island since Reconstruction, when formerly enslaved laborers took over former plantations.
An "urban growth boundary," established across the island limits where agricultural land must be protected and where development is allowed. Most of the city's side of the island is located within the urban growth boundary and as a result has seen a massive influx of residents looking for a lower cost of living than the city's core. Between 2010 and 2020, District 5, the district with Johns Island and West Ashley, grew a staggering 154 percent.
The redistricting process
Charleston Chief Innovation Officer Tracy McKee has led the city through the redistricting process three times in her career. Factoring in population growth between 2010 and 2020, McKee and city staff have been in the process of redrawing the council district boundaries for months.
"Four council members live on the peninsula, but we've had more growth in Berkeley County on Daniel Island and on Johns Island," McKee said.
Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau releases new population and demographic data that governments use to redraw voting districts. In 2020, it was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
City Council voted last summer to delay redistricting until after the fall 2021 election.
Officials try to balance the population size of each district as well as their geographic spread. In Charleston, for example, it would be impractical to include Daniel Island and outer West Ashley in the same district.
Initially, city staff put out one proposal in July. That plan kept all sitting council members within their current districts. None of them were at risk of losing their seat or having to run against each other to keep their seat. But the proposal split Johns island into three districts that included other areas of the city as well.
The map was met with some criticism for the wide span of geography each district covered. Districts were stretched from the peninsula far into West Ashley and District 11, covered parts of West Ashley, James Island and Johns Island.
The League of Women Voters published a commentary in The Post and Courier calling for more compact districts.
"Drawing districts to protect incumbents means the maps defy logic in many places. James Island remains divided into three different districts, one with very dubious contiguity as it crosses briefly over West Ashley and onto the peninsula. Johns Island, now all in District 5, will be divided into three different districts, diluting the voices of those residents," the league wrote.
The league now supports the new proposals, mainly because the districts don't stretch as far across the city.
"They keep communities together. These really prioritize citizen interests," said Leslie Skardon, the director of advocacy for the League of Women Voters.
Impact to incumbents
On Aug. 28, city staff unveiled two alternative maps that took some of that feedback into consideration. The two new maps, referred to as 1A and 1B, are almost identical except for their effects on two current peninsula districts.
Both maps make Johns Island its own district.
To create the Johns Island district, city staff proposed two options. They can move District 3 or District 6 off of the West Side of the peninsula to only cover West Ashley. If District 3 moves off, District 6 will absorb the portion of the West Side that is currently in District 3.
Because District 3 Councilman Jason Sakran lives on the peninsula, he would be drawn out of his district. He would have to run for District 6 against fellow Councilman William Dudley Gregorie. But that seat is not up for election until 2025. In the meantime, depending on when council decides to make the maps effective, a special election would determine who represents the new West Ashley-only version of District 3.
The other scenario would be that District 6 would move off of its portion of the West Side of the peninsula. In that case, Gregorie, who lives also in the West Side, would be drawn into Councilman Sakran's District 3. Because District 3 is up for election in 2023, the two would face off sooner.
Sakran said he would be OK with running against Gregorie in 2023, but he is most favorable of the original map that keeps all council members in their respective districts.
"You are overhauling peoples' elected representatives to the tune of 40 percent of the city's population," Sakran said of the new proposals.
According to the city, if the original proposal is accepted, about 30 percent of the city's population will end up in new council districts. If either of the alternatives are chosen, that number will move up to 39 percent.
Another factor in the process is the establishment of minority-majority districts. Districts 4 and 7 on the all three map proposals are majority-minority districts. They cover the upper peninsula and part of West Ashley, respectively. When the maps were last redrawn in 2010, the city went from having five majority-minority districts to three. Now the city is guaranteed to have two. As demographics shift, it's difficult to group minority voters together and ensure their voice is in the majority in any part of the city, McKee said.
City Council will review the map proposals at its Sept. 13 meeting. No action will be taken. A public hearing will be held in the fall. Residents can view the maps and leave comments online the city's redistricting "Open Town Hall" webpage at www.charleston-sc.gov/Redistricting2020. Email comments are accepted at email@example.com.