By DOTTY NIST
The boundaries of Walton County’s county commission and school board districts will be changing as a result of growth in the county, but what the changes will be is yet to be determined.
Following each 10-year U.S. Census, the Florida Constitution requires the members of each of the state’s boards of county commissioners to divide their county into districts as nearly equal as practical. The requirement is based on the principle of “one person one vote.”
The 2010 census figures for Walton County were recently provided. They showed that the county had increased by 14,443 residents over the 10-year period, bringing the county’s population number to 55,043.
The population in four of the county’s five districts districts is below the perfect split figure of 11,009 residents, while, at 15,946 residents, the District 5 population exceeds the ideal split number by almost 45 percent.
The Walton County Redistricting Committee has the task of developing recommendations for the redrawing of boundaries, in order to arrive at districts that are as equal as possible, while keeping the number of districts at five. The committee consists of five citizens appointed by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) along with five Walton County School District appointees, since school board districts mirror those of the BCC.
With the census figures in hand, the redistricting committee got started on its task at an April 6 meeting at the Walton County Health Department Building in DeFuniak Springs.
Ken Little served as coordinator for the committee on behalf of the BCC, and Tom Blackshear was redistricting committee coordinator for the school district.
Walton County GIS Coordinator Kevin Laird provided the committee members with copies of maps showing the current district plan and several possible plans for new district boundaries. Laird also displayed on a large screen maps of the county containing data, including census blocks. The options provided by Laird were discussed, along with others suggested by committee members.
Committee member Robert Nelson noted that in order for the plan recommended to be successfully defended, it is necessary to draw the boundaries along census block lines. The block lines reference landmarks such as roads, water bodies, and communities.
Committee member Ronnie Bell asked Laird to provide at the next meeting a voter precinct overlay. He explained that this would be a good opportunity to look at reducing the number of voter precincts to save taxpayer money.
Committee member Bonnie McQuiston said she would like to see both of the offices of the two commissioners representing south Walton County residents be located south of the bay. She was advised to address the District 1 commissioner, whose office is now located in Freeport.
The members discussed the impacts of district boundary changes on currently-serving commissioners and school board members. One scenario presented by Laird would have no impact on the incumbents, i.e., the residences of all of them would remain in their districts, and the plan would not put two commissioners or school board members in the same district. This would also be the case with another of the options thought to be reasonable, except that this option would result in one school board member’s residence being just across the street from their district boundary. It was discussed that minor adjustment to the plan might be able to correct the latter situation and keep the school board member’s home within their district.
Court decisions have upheld elected officials being able to serve out their terms in situations where redistricting has resulted in their residences no longer being included in the districts they represent. However, in some instances redistrictings have resulted in commissioners or school board members not being eligible to run for reelection due to residence issues.
Bell pointed out that, while the committee will be arriving at a redistricting recommendation, it is the county commission and school board which will be making the decision whether or not to approve the plan.
In discussing ways to shift the excess population in District 5 into other districts, one idea brought up was extending District 4 south, straight across the bay into part of what is now District 5. Some of the plans also showed District 1 extending west of U.S. 331 between U.S. 98 and the gulf.
Laird was asked to provide additional information for the committee’s next meeting, and the members will continue to look at different options at that meeting. “We may come up with a dozen of them before it’s all over,” Bell speculated.
Community members are invited to attend and provide input on their own ideas for redistricting. The meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. on May 4. The tentative location is the South Walton Tourist Development Council meeting room in Santa Rosa Beach.