District maps secrecy erodes people's trust

Editorial | Pensacola News Journal | 05/23/2014

Remember 2010? That's the year when we, the voters of Florida, passed a constitutional amendment that was supposed to combat gerrymandering, simplify our state's Legislature-drawn congressional districts and prevent them from favoring political parties or incumbents.

Remember 2012? That's the year when our Republican-dominated Legislature — helmed by Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford — set forth to scribbling and squiggling those aforementioned redistricting lines all over the state map.

Now it's 2014, and the work of modern art our elected officials produced has now cost Florida taxpayers almost $2 million in legal defense fees. Why? The current trial over the legality of those 2012 maps is providing more clues by the day.

As elucidated by reporter Mary Ellen Klas, of the Miami Herald: "In an unprecedented move, House Speaker Will Weatherford took the stand in the trial over Florida's congressional districts Tuesday and defended against accusations that legislators allowed staff to work with political consultants, enabled a shadow process to influence the outcome and destroyed records."

This courtroom drama is still unfolding, but Weatherford and Gaetz have steadfastly denied any legislative wrongdoing in the map-drawing process — despite evidence that creates a much shadier perception, including:

• Legislative staffers sharing internal data and maps-in-progress with political consultants before they were even made public to Florida voters.

• An admission from the former chief of staff to then-House Speaker Dean Cannon that he personally shared those unfinished maps with an interested political consultant in order to "help a friend."

• Deleted emails and documents that pertained to the redistricting process, and specifically, communications between state workers and outside political operatives with a potential interest in the outcome.

Klas reported that the state's lawyers argue that such exchanges of secret documents between legislative staffers and political consultants doesn't prove that there was an intent to break the law. We would argue that no matter what the intent was, the perception is precisely one of impropriety. And as we've long-admonished those entrusted with public offices — perception matters.

The lawsuit set forth by a coalition of Florida voters and the League of Women Voters is arguing that the friendly favors and the deleted emails indicate that legislators conducted "a separate redistricting process that was not only apart from the public process — but actually perverted the public process itself." We'll see how the trial plays out.

But at the very least, it simply looks wrong. This is precisely the sort of thing that erodes a common faith in fair and honest government.

Weatherford, Gaetz and all of our elected officials need to grasp that. Denying technical wrongdoing is one thing, but when the whole process appears to be rigged, broken and removed from the will of the common voter, that's a crime as great as any

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