House starts work on redistricting

Tallahassee, FL – The complicated process of redrawing Florida's political map is underway at the state capitol. Thursday the House concluded two days of briefing for its Redistricting committees. James Call tells us, Democrats want to know why one of their members wasn't given a seat at the table.

Redistricting is the ultimate insider's game. Politicians get to draw the boundaries for Legislative seats. Then some of the very same politicians will be candidates in districts that they helped to create. It's a once in a decade task based on Census numbers delivered to the Legislature in April...

While a consultant walked lawmakers through the legal requirements, House Democratic Leader-Designate, Perry Thurston listened from the back row. Speaker Dean Cannon did not name Thurston to the committee. He attended two days of meetings anyway. Wednesday when a gaggle of reporters surrounded him to ask why, Committee Chairman Will Weatherford approached Thurston, the two smiled, and exchanged a fist bump.

Thurston: "And here's my good friend Will Weatherford." (Unintelligible)
Weatherford: "You call me?"
Thurston: "I'll call you."
He's a good man, that Will Weatherford. (Laughter)

The House waited until April to hold its first meeting. The Senate has held a series of meetings. And some state legislatures have been at work for weeks. Weatherford said the committee will proceed quickly. It will follow a schedule to accommodate legal challenges and have the new district lines approved in time for the 2012 election. He said his focus is on the mechanics of redistricting and not the in's and out's of how members were chosen for his committee.

"That's a decision the Speaker makes. And as of right now he is not on the committee and I think in large part because he didn't submit a letter. It was a requirement that members do that, and I'm not engaging in that part of the conversation. I am focused on the path that we are taking in the House and we're doing it with the members that are on the committee."

Democrats said they want Thurston on the committee because he is their designate leader for the 2013 session. The Speaker's spokeswoman explained given the commitments lawmakers have to make to meetings and hearings, the Speaker asked members to express an interest in serving on the committee. Katie Betta said Thurston failed to respond to the request within the specified time frame.

"When we never received an email from Representative Thurston that he would like to serve on the committee, he was not considered for the committee and the Speaker chose from the pool of members who did respond to the email."

The explanation has Democrats scratching their heads. Current Minority Leader Representative Ron Saunders wrote Speaker Cannon a letter with the intent to quote, "resolve a possible mis-communication" about emails. He noted that Thurston submitted a committee preference from last November listing the redistricting committee as his first choice. Saunders characterized the missed deadline as a technicality that can be easily fixed.

"If the speaker is trying to send a message, we're not sure what the message is. If the message is he doesn't want to be cooperative, that is certainly a message but it is not clear what he is trying to do. That is why we want more clarification. If there is a reason why he doesn't want Representative Thurston on the Committee then state the reason. If the reason is he didn't get an email in time that is just a mis-communication that can be easily fixed by the speaker. If there is more to it than it is up to the Speaker to do that if he wants to send a message we suggest that he sends a clearer message."

The Speaker's spokeswoman said procedures are important when one tries to manage a 120-person organization like the Florida House of Representatives. Late Thursday afternoon the Speaker's office was looking to schedule a meeting with Representative Thurston. However there are no plans to name any more representatives to the committee. And for the second day in a row,committee chairman Weatherford ended a meeting by holding up the National Conference of State Legislature's 2010 Redistricting Law Book. He urged his members to read it.

"It's not an easy process. There's a lot of state and federal laws we must follow so we want members to understand what we can and cannot do as we draw these maps."

Lawmakers will schedule 20 meetings across the state to hear from citizens. Residents can follow the Legislature's progress in redrawing Florida's map at a website, Floridaredistricting.org.