By DOTTY NIST
The members of the Walton County Redistricting Committee quickly disposed of the redistricting map that they had thought held promise at their last meeting, but they decided on three other maps to move forward from their third meeting on Sept. 30 at Paxton School.
The Sept. 30 meeting began with an overview by Clayton Adkinson, legal counsel, of the redistricting process in order to refresh the committee members on their purpose.
Adkinson told the committee members, “Governments are required to review their existing political districts after receipt of each census. The commissioners and the school board each appoint representatives.” He explained that the committee is tasked with conducting that review and proposing necessary changes back to those boards for final approval.
“This committee,” Adkinson continued, “is holding community meetings across the county to receive public input and allow the opportunity to observe the process. The committee has set Nov. 4 as the date it intends to finalize its recommendation so that each board will have it in hand by Nov. 15, 2021 and can adopt it by the end of the calendar year.”
Redistricting maps/plans proposed by committee members are being presented at each meeting for consideration by the committee, with the possibility for maps proposed by the public to also be taken up for review.
Facing the committee at the Sept. 30 meeting for review were a total of 14 redistricting maps.
Committee member Gary Shipman quickly moved to strike from consideration the only map to survive from the committee’s last meeting on Sept. 16. This was Map 2A.
“2A puts District 3 where District 5 was and jumps over two other districts, so I make a motion that we discard 2A,” Shipman said.
Committee member Warren McIntire seconded, explaining, “That map takes two commissioners out of their district and also takes two school board members out of their district, and I don’t think that’s our job.”
A vote on the motion followed, with the members voting to strike Map 2A.
A similar map, 2B, was also struck by a vote of the committee members.
Committee Chairman Patrick Pilcher advised, “I think our statutory requirements are going to be getting this population per district as close to the optimal level as we can, and I think to move this thing along, for now, we need to concentrate on the districts, the boundaries, and I think the fine tuning of incumbency…I think that’s something that we can work out relatively quickly. But if we don’t, with this many maps, if we don’t keep rolling, and try to concentrate on the population…they’ll turn the coffee machines off at Tom Thumb before we get out of here.”
The members discussed the goal of getting the districts as equal in population as possible, although it was acknowledged that a perfect split would not be possible.
The next map, Map 2C, was struck due to variance in population among the districts of about 7.2 percent above the optimal. Also removed was Map 6A due to population variance issues.
Committee member Charlie Simmons spoke about Map 7A, pointing out that each city is in its own district with this map.
Shipman asked for Map 7A to be retained for consideration due to a better situation with the population numbers. This was agreed to by the committee.
Committee Vice Chairman Robert Nelson asked Shipman where he had obtained the information on the optimal population numbers.
Shipman responded that he had read Florida Statute 124 and a tutorial produced by the Florida Association of Counties. According to case law, he explained, if the population variance is three percent or less from what is considered optimal—meaning that the district with the lowest population is no more than three percent below the average and the district with the highest population is no more than three percent above the average—there is no judicial challenge to the redistricting unless there has been a manipulation to dilute minority vote.
If the variance is between three percent and 10 percent, Shipman continued, there could be a legal challenge. If it is above 10 percent, he said, “it will be presumed that there’s a problem,” although, he explained, it might be possible to prove that there is some extraordinary reason for a variance of that size.
“So, ideally,” Shipman said, “in my mind we should try to get these numbers,” speaking of the three percent or less variance.
“So the idea,” he noted, “is the closer you get to the variance between the lowest and the highest being, you know, like five percent is a heck of a lot better than eight percent (if) somebody tries to challenge it. And that’s why I keep looking at these numbers down here in the left hand corner on the charts.”
“And there are problems,” he continued, “getting two districts, if you want all of south of the bay to be two districts, it’s impossible to get it within three percent.”
“I worked with the numbers. You can’t do it,” he told the committee members.
There had been a number of comments by committee members and participants at the previous committee meeting in favor of having two districts completely located south of the bay. Currently one district, District 5, is totally south of the bay and parts of two other districts, District 1 and District 4, extend south of the bay.
Some of the proposed maps labeled districts with letters such as A, B, and C, rather than numbers, with the plan being for district numbers to be assigned later in the process.
Map 8A was discussed, which showed a District C in northwestern Walton County extending down to include the Villa Tasso community and not into the surrounding area on the north side of the bay.
“That makes no sense to me that Villa Tasso would be out there by itself on the bay,” Shipman said.
The committee members voted to strike Map 8A.
While there was observation that Map 9B got population numbers for the districts fairly close, it was also noted that it had an issue with a gap in one of the districts. That map was also struck.
Pilcher observed regarding Map 10A that three districts were shown south of the bay, two districts extending into the city limits of Freeport and two into DeFuniak Springs. “So a lot of changes on 10A,” he said.
Issues identified with 10-A were that two sections of District 4 were separated by parts of District 5. This map was struck from further consideration.
Map 11A was struck, as well, due to communities on the north shore of the bay not being included in the same district as Freeport and it not being possible to get to those communities without driving through Freeport.
There were comments by committee members that the next map, 11C, made more sense, including the north shore communities being in the same district as Freeport. It was also noted that the percentage from optimal for all five districts was less than three percent and that the gap issue had been addressed with this map to a large extent. There was a decision to retain this map for further consideration.
Map 12A showed only one district totally south of the bay. This map was struck on a motion to strike by Shipman.
He observed regarding Map 13A that there was the problem identified with previous map 10A of two distinct areas of District 4 being totally divided by District 5.
The committee members voted to strike Map 13A.
This left three maps remaining to move forward for further consideration, those being Map 5B, Map 7A, and Map 11C.
The three maps are to be carried forward to the committee’ next meeting for consideration along with any other additional maps that may be proposed.
South Walton County resident Barbara Morano, who had participated in the Oct. 30 meeting via ZOOM, asked for any maps submitted to be put online on the county website as soon as possible for viewing by the public.
“So our next meeting in two weeks will be in DeFuniak Springs,” Pilcher noted, “so whatever end up being new considerations for that meeting we will go through.”
“But I’m hoping,” he commented, “that when we leave that meeting, we’re going to have very few (maps and ) with a good continuity, good population numbers, and we can then start working on, on the fine tuning.”
Committee member Lisbeth Jackson encouraged committee members that if submitting new maps to pick their best map from the several that they may have created and bring it forward rather than all the maps they have worked up.
Oct. 14 at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs.
Committee meetings are open to public attendance and participation, and plans are for the remainder of the committee meetings to be live streamed on the Walton County website. ZOOM participation is also possible by following the county’s virtual public comment process, which requires submittal of a registration form request 24 hours in advance of the meeting.