FairDistricts groups call upcoming redistricting hearings a 'charade'

By Kathleen Haughney[ck_comma] Tallahassee Bureau | Sun Sentinel | 06/14/2011

TALLAHASSEE – Backers of constitutional amendments designed to prevent political gerrymandering in the redistricting process called upcoming public hearings a "charade" on Tuesday because lawmakers won't release a map of proposed new legislative and congressional districts until next year.

Representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Florida League of Women Voters and Democracia say it's worthless for legislators to take public testimony without giving citizens maps to react to, and objected that lawmakers are barred from publicly discussing their concerns.

"The exercise in our opinion is a total waste of time," said Jorge Mursuli, president of Democracia.

Beginning June 20, lawmakers will begin a summer-long series of 26 hearings around the state, with work on new boundaries for 40 state Senate, 120 state House and 27 congressional districts slated to conclude next March.

Senate Redistricting Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, fired back at the criticism, saying there indeed are maps – the ones that have been in place for the past 10 years.

"That's a great takeoff point to say 'I don't like where my congressman lives compared to where I live,'" Gaetz said. "We're not starting with a blank sheet of paper. We're not inventing a state here. We already have a state, and we already have legislative and congressional districts. This is a chance for the public to have their say."

Gaetz said the hearings will allow residents to offer suggestions about how districts should be drawn. If there is time at the end of a hearing, he said, lawmakers can discuss what they're heard. And at any time, an individual lawmaker, a member of the public or interest group can produce a proposal for a new map.

"I'm sorry that Fair Districts people, who I thought were a grass-roots organization — or at least that's how they portray themselves — would be troubled by asking the people of Florida to provide their unfettered comments and criticisms," he said.

The Fair Districts amendments, approved by voters last November, have added new twists to the once-a-decade redistricting process.

The amendments would essentially ban gerrymandering, requiring lawmakers to draw more regular, compact districts that do not favor incumbents or political parties, rather than the current odd-shaped districts drawn to favor the party drawing them.

Last spring, Republican legislative leaders tried to neuter the measures with a competing constitutional amendment. But that was removed from the ballot by the Florida Supreme Court for misleading ballot language.

Then, U.S. Reps.Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, andMario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, sued in federal court to stop the amendments from taking effect, arguing that it would be impossible for lawmakers to draw seats that favor minority representation. The Florida House joined the lawsuit, which has not yet been heard.

The groups, in their letter, asked that the House drop out of the lawsuit – and urged elimination of a ground rule for the hearings that says lawmakers will not be recognized for question or comment.

"It's time for us to get down to business and stop fighting these amendments," said Leon Russell, legislative chair of the Florida NAACP. "It's time to carry out the will of the people."

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, who has previously tangled with Fair Districts leaders in public meetings, noted that lawmakers have scheduled 85 hours of public testimony and that all groups were invited to participate.

"Since the Fair Districts Now group is so concerned about redistricting, I once again invite them to submit their own maps so everybody can see their concept of a 'fair district,'" he said. "If the past is any indication though, they'll come up with an excuse not to participate in this important process."

But Deirdre Macnab of the Florida League of Women Voters said it's the job of the politicians – not the public — to draw the maps according to the new rules. "They have asked us to do it and we see that as an abrogation of them doing their job,'' she said. "We call on them to do their job."

khaughney@tribune.com or 850-224-6214. Follow her on Twitter @khaughney.

Copyright © 2011, Orlando Sentinel

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