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Legislators seek help in defining fair districts

Jun 30th, 2011 | 0

By DOTTY NIST

How is a fair voting district created? In this area, most people seem to agree that it should be done with impartiality and openness and without reference to politics.

This was evidenced by a June 22 public input meeting on the state redistricting process,

“We are letting you start the conversation,” Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel) told the more than 200 attendees at meeting, which took place at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City.

Weatherford, speaker designate for the Florida House of Representatives and chair of the House Redistricting Committee, and Senator Don Gaetz (R-Niceville), committee chair for the Senate, served as co-moderators for the meeting.

Dozens of other state senators and representatives were in attendance as well. Gaetz commented that this was probably the largest assembly of legislators ever in Bay County.

The gathering was part of the first round of a series of meetings scheduled in 26 locations all over the state over the next three months to listen to members of the public on the topic of the redistricting process, which the legislature will be undertaking this year and finalizing in 2012.

“This is the beginning of public input,” Gaetz told the citizens.

“This will be the most transparent process ever of redistricting in Florida,” he pledged.

Weatherford commented that the Florida Constitution mandates the redistricting of the state every 10 years to equalize population numbers in U.S. Congressional, state Senate, and state House districts. He noted that the current redistricting process will involve the addition of two congressional seats for the state.

Ideal populations for districts will be 696,345 for each Congressional district, 470,033 for each state Senate district, and 156,678 for each state House district, Weatherford told attendees. Due to the increase in Florida’s population over the past 10 years, numbers in all three types of districts will go up significantly.

In addition to previously-existing state and federal requirements for redistricting, with the process now getting underway legislators will also be required to comply with standards set in two amendments to the Florida Constitution approved by voters in November, sometimes referred to as the “Fair District” amendments. Amendment 5 directs that, for legislative districts, “districts may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.” Amendment 6 sets the same standards for Congressional redistricting.

“You have our word that we will abide by Amendments 5 and 6,” Weatherford pledged.

With more than 20 citizens addressing the legislators in turn, the most frequent criticism at the June 22 public hearing was that no proposed redistricting maps had been provided for them to comment on. Maps showing current districts were on display as a “point of departure,” as Gaetz termed it.

“Where are the maps?” asked Bill Prichard of the Bay County Chapter of ACLU. Prichard was concerned that all the public hearings on redistricting would take place before rather than after redistrictng maps were proposed.

Cecile Scoon of Panama City agreed, saying that having “basic map” proposals to comment on would have been a better “use of the time.” She was unsure whether there would be an opportunity for the legislators to come back before the public once the map proposals were in place.

Weatherford countered that people would have been upset if map proposals had been provided at the outset—and would have said the legislators just wanted them to “rubber stamp” the proposals. Providing maps at this point would have put “the answer ahead of the question,” he argued.  Weatherford added that an important purpose of “listening tour” was to get citizens’ opinions on “what fair districts are.”

Another criticism by citizens was the amount of money being spent on the hearings, including travel expenses for the legislators. Weatherford disputed reports that $30 million was being spent in connection with the gatherings but did not quantify the amount.

There were a number of calls for the process to be expedited and to be conducted in a nonpolitical fashion….

Read the full story in the June 30, 2011 edition of the Herald Breeze.

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