Florida redistricting committee hits Lakeland; Wesley Chapel is next

07/26/11 Kate Bradshaw
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A group of state legislators charged with mapping out Florida’s voting districts is facing criticism and praise as they make their way across the state. A public hearing in Polk County drew out voters of every stripe to weigh in on the state’s politically-charged redistricting process.

More than one hundred people attended the hearing at Polk State College’s Lakeland campus, and dozens addressed the redistricting committee directly. Some praised the thirty or so lawmakers for taking on the task of redrawing the boundaries for each of Florida’s legislative and Congressional districts. Others, like Polk County Democratic Party head Karen Welzel, were critical of the predominantly Republican committee.

She said it’s pretty obvious that the committee isn’t interested in drawing districts in a way that might not benefit the GOP, and that millions of state dollars set aside for litigation stemming from redistricting is a case in point. Republican Senator Don Gaetz wondered aloud why she bothered if she’s so cynical about the process.

Lori Edwards, Polk County Supervisor of Elections, said she’s skeptical of the legislature’s timeline for drawing new congressional and legislative districts. She said there wouldn’t be much of window between the adoption of the new maps and the onslaught of net year’s election season.

The list went on. Mid-Florida ACLU Director Joyce Hamilton Henry said the tight timeline will be real headache for anyone running for a seat in Congress or the State Legislature next year.

Many critics say the committee should have drawn up sample maps for the public to weigh in on, and say once the final product comes out, there will be little time for public input. Dena DeCamp of the Republican Women’s Club of Lakeland said if lawmakers had brought maps with them, they would have faces the same amount of criticism.

Committee members repeatedly said they were not there to do political battle, but to hear comment on issues specific to Central Florida. Lakeland resident Janelle Hendrin said legislators need to look at the nuances of Polk County and draw the area’s legislative districts in a way that doesn’t favor one competing interest over another.

The redistricting process, which happens every ten years following the Census, has long drawn fire from critics who say it’s way too easy for the party in power to draw boundaries in a self-serving manner. Last November, voters adopted two state Constitutional amendments that are supposed to require that the districts be drawn in a way that’s compact and contiguous. Two Florida lawmakers – a Republican legislator and a Democratic US Representative – immediately filed suit, and the Florida House joined the lawsuit. But Republican State Senator Ronda Storms said critics are wrong in assuming that the 26 hearings the redistricting committee is holding across the state are only for show.

But ACLU’s Joyce Hamilton Henry had a more cynical explanation.

Representative Will Weatherford is House Speaker Designate for the 2012 session, and is chair of the redistricting committee. The Wesley Chapel Republican didn’t want to comment on that point and said the public hearing process is a little to involved to be all for show.

As to the question of the timeliness of the redistricting process, Weatherford said it’s the committee’s job to make good time on the process.

The committee will continue to hold hearings throughout the state through September. The lawmakers head to Wesley Chapel Tuesday, Orlando on Wednesday, and Melbourne Thursday, then on to South Florida. They’ll be back in the Tampa Bay Area in late August.

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