Settlement in Jones County will reconfigure Board of Commissioners to better represent black community

Madeline Gray | North State Journal

TRENTON — A court settlement in rural southeastern North Carolina should mean that Jones County will see their first black county commissioner in more than 20 years.

On Thursday, a federal district court approved the replacement of the at-large method currently used to elect the Jones County Board of Commissioners with a system of single-member districts. Under the terms of the settlement, the nearly coastal county will add two seats to the board after the November 2018 election — increasing the number of representatives from five to seven members.

Three Jones County natives filed the lawsuit in February, arguing that the previous method of electing members to the board diluted the voting strength of African-American voters, in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The case was the first case filed under the Voting Rights Act in the nation in 2017. The plaintiffs were represented by a lawyers’ committee based in North Carolina, New York and Washington, D.C.

“This important victory ensures that African-American voters in Jones County will have an opportunity elect representatives of their choice,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, during a press call on Thursday. “For over 20 years, the Board of Commissioners could willfully ignore the needs or concerns of nearly a third of the Jones County community. The Voting Rights Act continues to be a powerful tool to safeguard the rights of African-American voters in Jones County and beyond.”

Jones’ District 1, representing the Trenton area, has the highest concentration of black voters with 54.53 percent of the population being African American, according to the 2010 Census. Under the current at-large method, anyone within county lines can represent this district.

“We are glad that the system for electing Jones County commissioners is now fair for all citizens, black and white,” said Burton Craige, a Raleigh lawyer with the civil rights firm Patterson-Harkavy, said in a statement.

Initial negotiations worked toward reconfiguring the five board districts to better serve the African0American population, but the county eventually agreed to adding two extra seats.

“Everyone agreed the addition of two more members on the board would provide better representation to the black population,” County Manager Franky Howard told the Sun Journal in New Bern.

“Speaking for the county, obviously we wanted to do the right thing,” Howard said. “We were glad we were able to come to an agreement.”