Tampa and Largo voters fed up at state redistricting hearings
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08/30/11 Josh Holton
WMNF Drive-Time News Tuesday | Listen to this entire show:

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Hundreds of people turned out for two hearings held locally on the topic of redistricting. Many in the audience were angry as they confronted a panel of about 40 state legislators in Tampa Monday night. And on Tuesday in Largo was another hearing which gave Floridians a chance to speak out about upcoming changes in voting district lines. While politicians came out to hear fresh ideas, they mostly got a hearty helping of voter anger. In Tampa, Boris Vateri said Democratic member of Congress Kathy Castor's district is gerrymandered.

"This congressional district is gerrymandered. There should be no reason why a representative that represents Tampa or Hillsborough County should have to go all the way to Pinellas County and speak with voters in St. Petersburg or go down to Manatee County and speak with voters in Bradenton, when they have no connection to us here in Hillsborough County."

It’s the state legislature’s job to draw up the new maps, and the state officials have spent tens of thousands of dollars on tour this summer while asking for public input. Sun City Center resident Vera Chapman scolded the panel of state politicians for joining a lawsuit against amendment 6, which passed a majority vote in 2010. She said the real public comment they need to heed is this latest addition to the Florida constitution.

"You need to stop wasting our time and our money on these sham hearings and your desire to overturn 5 and 6. (Applause from audience) I'm old enough to be the mother of some of you here on this panel and I can assure you if you were my child you'd be taken behind the shed and it would be a darn stiff switch that I'd take to your hinies."

Amendment 6 is being challenged in court by two sitting members of congress; one a black democrat, and the other a Hispanic republican. The amendment affects congressional districts, some of which have had minority gains in recent election cycles. State Representative Will Weatherford contested the idea that any special funding is being set aside to challenge Amendment 6 in court.

"The fund that the legislature has, that the Florida House has, to pay for all of it's bills and keep the lights on and everything else but the fact that people keep saying that there's a fund to fight the amendments, it's not true and I believe PolitiFact is wrong, they're entitled to their opinion but they're not entitled to their own set of facts."

But Independent Party member Ernie Bach challenged Weatherford citing millions of dollars in court costs.

"$30 million set aside, $3 million already spent with 2 1/2 million spent on lawyers by the legislature. That's you people sitting up there. Attempting to defeat 5 and 6. How many citizens told you to do that?"

Ernie waited for an answer, but got a different response than he was looking for when he was removed from the building.

"I'd be happy to distribute that answer to over 2 1/2 million Independent and NPA (no party affiliation) voters in the state of Florida."

"Mr. Bach I'm gonna have to ask you to put a bow on it for us."

"I've waited a long time here Mr. Weatherford and I've got about two more minutes which I hope to finish."

"You don't have two minutes because you've got about 35 people behind you who also want to speak so you're over two and a half minutes and that's all you've got."

"And you're interrupting me too and using my time. Remember that number, 2 1/2 million independent voters to answer the question..."

"Sir, we're gonna have to ask you to turn your comments in. You're over two and a half minutes, that's all we've got and we've got 35 people behind you that want to speak. So, please, Ernie come on, please. There's a lot of people who want to speak sir, there's a lot of people who want to speak. I got it right here. Ernie please."

Many folks also called the series a public hearings this summer a dog and pony show, that puts the cart before the horse by asking for voter input prior to releasing maps proposed by legislature. Some were worried that maps might get finalized without another chance for public input. State Senator and Reapportionment Chair Don Gaetz announced no plans to wait until the last minute release maps.

"I don't think this is like whiskey, I don't think it gets better as it gets older. But I do believe that we have to respect the fact that there are Democrats and Republicans, House Members and Senators, who will want to have a full and thorough debate and examination of the issues. We will have thousands of pages of public testimony that we will have gotten from these 26 hearings. We already have nearly 50 plans that have been proposed. There are members of the Legislature who want to make sure that the work that we do is faithful to the hearings that have been held and that we use the information that we've gotten from these hearings as a foundation for our legislations."

Monday night a thirteen year old named Graham submitted two maps his family had designed using the publicly available software on the redistricting website. But Florida Consumer Action Network’s Tim Heberlein said that map may never become accepted, and that any official maps released by the legislature will only show up in Tallahassee, hundreds of miles from those who attended these public meetings.

"You know, most people in Florida won't be able to go up to Mount Tallahassee to make public comment on those maps so that's a different part of this process where accessibility, one of the ladies mentioned how many Floridians don't have computers. They're not able to use the software, they don't even know what these maps are about. They can't analyze the software and the voter statistics on that so there's a lot of people being disenfranchised by this process."

Don Gaetz saw that a potential conflict may exist at the hearings between majority groups such as Hispanics, and Fair Districts supporters who want compact districts. Darden Rice is with the League of Women Voters. She fought for 5 &6 to pass, but cautions against Don Gaetz proposal to protect “communities of interest.”

"It's also important to pay attention to what Senator Gaetz is saying when he starts talking about "communities of interest". Because that's a very, very flimsy term. If that term had been included in the original amendments,then you would have really seen lawsuits because the "communities of interest" can be used to define anything. That's why we went with something that was legally simplistic and fair, that's why we went with compact districts and did not use that language."

Gaetz funded campaigns to oppose Amendments 5 and 6 in 2010, but claims he has since supported them since they became law. Many folks supported 5&6 to allow more competitive elections. Kathy Castor’s 11th covers three counties, providing what some call an “incumbent protection plan” by spanning boundaries coast to coast or across bodies of water to corral voters. Florida ACLU President Mike Pheneger said that while Florida’s evenly divided along party lines, gerrymandering is making elections unfair.

"That's why because you have 42 percent of the state being registered Democrat, 41 percent being registered Republican and over 66 percent of the House and Senate of the State of Florida are Republican and gerrymandering is what does that. And gerrymandering works. We want 5 and 6 to stop that."

In response to demands for a tighter timeline, Senator Gaetz even suggested a possible amendment proposal that could move Florida’s redistricting process a year earlier, so that candidates could have more time to prepare for even election years like 2012. Democratic State Senator Nan Rich may release the first map proposal at an interim state reapportionment committee meeting on September 22.

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