Population shifts call for restructure of parish lines

Gina Zanutto

Ascension Parish officials have requested an expedited review for redistricting Plan B2, approved in June, conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, a requirement prior to its implementation.

“The plan has to first be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice,” said John Diez, president of Magellan Strategies’ Gonzales Branch and principle consultant for the project.

Magellan Strategies, a national company that specializes in information gathering, database organization and political mapping, has several locations in Louisiana. The organization is conducting the development and subsequent application of the plan in Ascension Parish. Additionally, Baton Rouge resident John Diez is the primary manager of the operation as well as the redistricting consultant to Parish President Tommy Martinez.

According to Diez, input from parish council members and the public was integral to the development of the plan. However, several “dramatic population shifts” were the driving factors, including a number of map-altering population increases, decreases and general movements.

The West Bank area, encompassing Donaldsonville, declined in population, decreasing from 14 percent of the region’s residents in the 2000 census to 10 percent in the most recent count. Diez anticipates it will eventually comprise only a single district in the coming years, possibly as soon as the next census.  However, population centers in the East Bank and central areas of the parish have moved “substantially” to the more northern and western reaches of their district lines, causing an increased population shift to the North and West despite an overall population decrease around the West Bank.

“The council districts on the East Bank more closely reflect the population shifts that have taken place over the past decade,” Diez said.

Diez opted not to speculate regarding the impact on local politics, stating only that “Northern and Western Ascension have gained influence in more council districts under the proposed plan.”

“The changes in the new district boundaries, which give north Ascension more electoral influence in more council districts, will increase the saliency of issues dealing with traffic congestion and growth management,” Diez said. “I would expect the people of Ascension to see local government tackle these issues like they tackled drainage in the 1980s.”

Overall, Ascension Parish is the fastest growing parish in the state of Louisiana, followed closely by Livingston Parish. This immense and rapid population growth immensely affected the recent mapping of the area.

“Redistricting is required by law every 10 years, regardless of growth patterns,” Diez said. “However, growth patterns played a tremendous role in how the districts were drawn.”

Approximately 72 percent of all growth between 2000 and 2010 occurred in three north Ascension districts, specifically Districts Four, Five and Eight. Important issues can vary dramatically from district to district and provide the potential for conflict in the area.

“From a policy standpoint, growth management and traffic congestion now dwarf drainage as the most important issue in the parish,” Diez said. “Politically, as districts become bigger and more new people move in, campaign tactics will change.”

According to Diez, the majority of other districts in the parish qualify as “under populated.” This disparity is impacting the various levels of local government, including campaign strategy.

“In the old days, the number one campaign tactic was to come from a big family with a prominent name who was married into another big family with a prominent name,” Diez said. “For the most part, political campaigns in the past were relative-driven. I think we have and will continue to see a shift to more issue-driven campaigns. Also, as districts become larger in population, the cost to run a credible campaign on the local level will increase.”

According to Diez, Magellan Strategies completed the final version of Plan B2 this past weekend and have recently submitted it to the Department of Justice.

More information is available from the Ascension Parish web site, www.ascensionparish.net, and from the Department of Justice web site, www.justice.gov. Hard copies of the plan, including maps and official district lines, will also be available at all local libraries.