HUNTINGTON — Districts with like communities was the top priority for Cabell and Wayne county residents who spoke to the West Virginia Joint Committee on Redistricting on Thursday evening at the Cabell County Courthouse.
The committee is hosting public hearings around the state as part of the redistricting process, which occurs by law every 10 years.
No proposed maps were at the meeting as data from the 2020 U.S. census was delayed due to the pandemic.
For Wayne County residents, the top priority is dividing the county in two. Speakers like Robert Thompson, Wayne County commissioner and a former Wayne delegate, said the southern part of the county has different interests than the northern part. The south is in the coalfields and much more rural than areas like Ceredo and Kenova, which are more closely tied to Huntington.
In the House of Delegates, the entire county, with the exception of Westmoreland, is in the same district. The county is divided into unequal thirds in the Senate, however, which residents said was confusing and made it so some people didn’t know who their representative was.
“We need to develop what we have,” said Pepper Peana. “Southern Wayne needs its own representation so we can have a fighting chance. Otherwise, we will continue to see projects go by the wayside.”
One of those projects is the Heartland Intermodal Gateway in Prichard, a $32 million investment in 2015 that the state has since abandoned as it failed to produce as projected.
Kenneth Adkins, president of the Wayne County Commission, said there are efforts underway to revitalize that project, and a dedicated representative would help.
“Wayne is the western gate to West Virginia,” Adkins said. “When they cross the gate, they don’t stay long, though, and that’s something we want to change.”
Cabell County residents, who currently have representation throughout four districts, expressed concerns about losing representation. T-Anne See, chairwoman of the Cabell County GOP, said she’s heard from many people with that concern.
She said there are also candidates chomping at the bit for the new district information. Commissioners from both county commissions asked for the new districts to be drawn as fast as possible so county clerks can get to work.
Nyoka Baker Chapman, representing the Huntington League of Women Voters, said the goal should be compact districts, as districts are currently “chaotic.” District 16, for example, packages downtown Huntington with a part of Lincoln County.
“I ask that great care be taken to make sure communities of interest stay grouped together,” said Lenny Sunduhl, Huntington resident.
As for the congressional districts, of which West Virginia will drop from three to two, many agreed with Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce director Bill Bissett that Huntington and Charleston should be in the same congressional district.
“Separation is just another wedge (between the two cities),” Bissett said.
The southern coalfields should also be in the two cities’ district, he said.
“Many forget how connected to southern West Virginia we are, but you are in the coalfields,” Bissett said, adding that anything great in Huntington and Charleston needs to be expanded south.
“Opportunities can’t just be in the population centers,” he said. “We have to share that.”
Two more in-person listening sessions are scheduled for early September in Charleston and in Parkersburg. Two virtual sessions will be announced soon.
Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, said they hope to present maps to the Legislature in October.