PANAMA CITY — Panhandle residents said they want fair representation in state and federal government, but there was some disagreement Wednesday on the best way to ensure it.
The residents were sharing their opinions about how the redistricting process should take place during a public hearing with the Florida House and Senate redistricting committees. Throughout the summer the committees will meet statewide to seek input from residents as they begin the process of redrawing lines for state House and Senate districts and Congressional districts.
The discussion was general, with no specific ideas for boundary lines beyond requests to keep a county in one district or split it in two. Much of the conversation Wednesday encompassed opposing philosophical views about the benefits of one representative for an entire county or more, while others talked about the benefits of having a district with diverse interests versus a more homogenous one.
“Please, when you redistrict, try to make the district equal as can be with different groups of people,” said Joan Miller. When districts consist of only beach property or only agricultural property, one district is better suited to buy influence, she said.
Jim Anders, a South Walton County resident, spoke in favor of an opposite goal. He said he sees a need to keep issues separate, with one representative for coastal interests and another for rural. It prevents representatives from having to represent divergent interests that could be at odds.
Not everyone agreed that’s a bad thing. Jennifer Jones, executive director of the Bay Arts Alliance, said having a diverse district can be beneficial because it encourages representatives to look for a fair compromise, or, as she put it, “to make Solomon decisions.”
Some suggested what’s best for a county like Bay might not be best for more rural counties in the area, and representatives from some of the area’s chambers of commerce advocated for different approaches.
Beth Oltman, president of the Panama City Beach Chamber of Commerce, asked that Bay County be kept together in one district, which she said would afford the area political power.
Art Kimbrough of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce disagreed about the best way for rural counties to boost influence: the more representatives, the better. Over the years, rural areas have lost influence in the Legislature, he said, and a way to increase it is to have as many representatives to turn to for help as possible.
Legislative influence is about relationships as much as it is about lines on a district map, he said. Even if an elected official doesn’t represent the entire county, Kimbrough said residents can turn to him or her for help. Ideally, he said, he would like to see districts compact and include areas of shared interest, but said Calhoun County benefits from having two representatives and he doesn’t want that to change.
Much of the discussion took place on a general level, with many making pleas to keep political concerns separate from the task of redistricting, and some said the process in place seemed to elicit that type of discussion.
Rather than present maps with proposals for redistricting, the committee wanted to hear public input first.
William Pritchard, who said he represented himself and Bay County’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he would have preferred if there were maps created so residents could have a proposal on which to comment.
“Now all we can comment on is the process,” he said — and the process received criticism.
John McDonald, of Panama City Beach, questioned the state’s spending on the public hearing process during a time when the state’s budget has been slashed and workers laid off.
Deirdre Macnab, president of the Florida League of Women Voters, reiterated after the meeting the organization’s concern that taxpayer dollars weren’t being spent in the best manner possible. She said having maps available would have allowed more in-depth conversations.
“Shouldn’t the end goal be to have as productive and substantive forum as possible?” she asked.
Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who serves as the chair of the House Redistricting Committee, said Florida was one of the last states to receive data from the 2010 Census and had only recently finished the online District Builder tools that residents can use to submit redistricting plans. The state constitution says the Legislature can’t take action on redistricting until 2012, and to make sure the process moves quickly the next legislative session has been moved up to January from March.
Weatherford added that the Legislature wanted to start the process with an open mind and take comments from the public before presenting them with a proposal. He said if maps had been drawn, the group would have been accused of bypassing resident input.