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West Monroe proposes plan to elect black alderman



MONROE, La. – Reacting to a threat from the U.S. Department of Justice, West Monroe officials took steps this week to ensure a black candidate could be elected to the Board of Aldermen in future elections.

West Monroe’s Board of Aldermen proposed to eliminate its long-held practice of electing aldermen at-large. Instead of electing five aldermen at-large, city voters would elect three aldermen from single-member districts while two aldermen would continue to be elected citywide, under the city’s proposal.

Deputy Asst. Att. General Pamela S. Karlan, of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, wrote Mayor Staci Mitchell in early March to inform her the Justice Department was poised to file a lawsuit against the city for violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965. According Karlan, the city’s at-large system of electing aldermen denied black voters “an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.”

In her correspondence to Mitchell, Karlan noted that 34.1 percent of West Monroe’s population was black while blacks compose some 28.9 percent of the voting age population in the city. She said an analysis of election returns showed “racially polarized voting patterns prevail in West Monroe elections.”

“In the most probative contests, black voters vote cohesively and white voters cast ballots sufficiently as a bloc to defeat the black voters’ candidates of choice,” Karlan wrote. “The black population in West Monroe is sufficiently numerous and geographically compact that under a fairly drawn single-member district voting plan, members of the black community could constitute a majority of the voting age population in one of the five districts.”

Part of Karlan’s two-page letter to Mitchell accused the city of engaging in tactics to discriminate against blacks in “education, employment, and health, which hinder their ability to participate effectively in the political process.”

“West Monroe’s black residents have suffered from a history of official discrimination,” Karlan wrote.

Karlan gave no specifics to support her claim.

In speaking at the Board of Aldermen meeting Tuesday night, Mitchell did not respond to Karlan’s remarks directly. She did, however, defend West Monroe’s existing voting system.

“The at-large method serves our city well,” Mitchell said.

Besides authorizing Caldwell to submit West Monroe’s voting system proposal to the Justice Department, the Board of Aldermen also signed off on the city engaging North Delta Regional Planning and Development in Monroe to assist the city in adhering to the Justice Department’s request. For years North Delta has worked with local governing bodies on redistricting plans to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

According to Mitchell, she first learned of the Justice Department’s investigation of West Monroe’s practice of electing aldermen in 2018, or around the time she was elected mayor. Mitchell said she never spoke to anyone from the Justice Department and heard nothing more of the investigation until she received Karlan’s letter dated March 4.

In other business, the Board of Aldermen voted to condemn six structures in the city. They are located at 407 South 1st St., 103 Pear St., 110 Clover St., 203 Riverbend Dr., 1000 Natchitoches St. and 1004 Natchitoches St. Aldermen refrained from condemning a structure at 117 North Riverfront. They will revisit condemning the North Riverfront structure at a later date.

On another front, the Board of Aldermen authorized the city to enter into a cooperative endeavor agreement with Hospital Service District No. 1 to accept a $100,000 contribution from the service district for West Monroe’s ongoing efforts to rehabilitate the former Trenton Street Golf Course, now known as Highland Park. The city will use the $100,000 contribution toward the development of walking trails.

The Board of Aldermen also approved a cooperative endeavor agreement with Kiroli Foundation to accept and administer a $75,000 grant from the Monroe/West Monroe Convention & Visitors Bureau. The grant will be used to purchase Christmas lights to be displayed in Kiroli Park.