South Carolina's state demographer has agreed to offer his opinion about a proposal to create Beaufort City Council districts, according to the city's attorney.
It's not clear when he will do so.
The Burton-Dale-Beaufort NAACP branch, working with the national NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, seeks an end to at-large elections of council members and wants the city to adopt districts. Branch president Darryl Murphy said that would improve the chances of a minority winning a council seat.
The city and local NAACP branch have been discussing districting since about November. In April, city attorney Bill Harvey wrote to state demographer Bobby Bowers asking for his views.
Attempts Friday to reach Bowers for comment were unsuccessful.
In a letter Thursday to the local NAACP branch, Harvey said Bowers has asked to meet with the city and the NAACP "to explain his findings to us jointly."
"We hope you will agree that this is the most logical and prudent way to proceed," Harvey wrote in his letter to the NAACP. "We welcome your input and look forward to hearing from you about scheduling this meeting."
The letter did not say when Bowers made that request nor when a meeting would be scheduled. Mayor Billy Keyserling said the demographer's request for a meeting was made within the last week.
Demographers study human populations and changes, and one of the state demographer's jobs is to weigh in on districting projects, according to the S.C. Office of Research and Statistics.
Keyserling said neither the city nor county has a demographer to draw districts, and the state demographer tends to be the final authority on such issues.
"We're trying to make this as clean and transparent as possible," he said.
Keyserling said he does not know what specifically to expect from the meeting, but based on his past experience as a state representative, he believes Bowers will go over the entire city's demographics as well as the proposal for new districts.
"Our question is, can you draw a fair district, or is the (black) population so spread out it can't be done?" he said.
The city's last two black council members were Fred Washington Jr., who served from 1979 to 1993, and Alice Wright, who served from 1982 to 1987. City officials were at first skeptical of districting, arguing that they could not see a way to draw a district of contiguous areas with a large black majority.
The NAACP countered in April with several maps, accompanied by statistics and a letter, showing possible configurations for either four or six districts.
The four-district configuration would create a district with a 53.97 percent black majority. The six-district proposal would create a district with a 52.55 percent black majority. Both are largely centered in the Northwest Quadrant neighborhood, and both use line-of-sight rules to connect districts across waterways such as Battery Creek and the Beaufort River.
Under both plans, the mayor would continue to be elected at large.
Harvey sent the maps to Bowers in April.
Murphy said he learned Thursday from Harvey that Bowers had agreed to a meeting, and he wants to talk with local and national NAACP officials before responding at length. He said he intends to send a written response to the city.
The NAACP has offered to work with the state demographer in previous letters to the city.
"I think it's fair to say that we want to keep our communications open, so if the city says it wants to meet with the demographer, we want to continue communicating," he said.
Harvey's letter said a meeting could be arranged in Columbia, where the demographer's office is located, or in Beaufort.
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.