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Critics label redistricting hearings a "sham"

By James Call

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-975296.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – "The people of Florida deserve a chance to hear what is on your mind."

Deidre McNabb, president of the League of Women Voters, does not like the rules lawmakers are following for redistricting hearings.

"Let's make these hearings substantive and productive. We urge you to get your staff to work now drawing district maps so that we can have a substantive conversation and discussion."

Lawmakers have embarked on a 26-city listening tour in advance of drawing new statehouse and congressional districts. House and Senate leaders bill the events as a chance for citizens to "Tell Us Your Story". Many who attended the Tallahassee hearing said they thought the meeting was a sham. Democratic Fort Lauderdale Representative Evan Jenne agrees.

"I believe that there are maps that have already been drawn that have not seen the light of day. That has been down behind closed doors. I think that they are right. They do have a valid point. This is a dog and pony show."

Activists like the League of Women Voters and Fair Districts Inc, which got voters to approve new rules for redistricting, say they suspect the worst because of three things. Chief among them is lawmakers have presented no maps for residents to talk about. Republican leaders say at this point in the process it is best not to have any proposal from Tallahassee. There may be no act as political as redistricting. In Florida it always invites lawsuits. Winter Garden Representative Stephen Precourt said at this point a proposal from lawmakers could taint the final product.

"We have absolutely not drawn any maps. There is nothing that we have put on paper because we don't want to taint the process. We know that it is going to be looked at under a microscope so we want to make absolutely sure that we don't create a problem for the final work product. Like showing some preconceived bias before we get through the process of what the maps should be."

Legislative leaders say they are determined to listen first and create maps after the New Year. Niceville Senator Don Gaetz is leading the Senate delegation and said he was pleased with the Tallahassee hearing.

"And as we move out across the state I'm sure we will hear from lots of people with opinions, we look forward to it. As I said I filled 3 pages with notes myself today."

Gaetz and Precourt are members of a Republican super-majority in the state legislature. Their opponents imply that since the GOP is the minority in voter registration but has firm control of state government indicates something is wrong with the process.

However, Precourt an engineer by training, said lawmakers are following a robust framework based on data collection and analysis. He said the purpose of the hearing is to gather information. That is public input after the public has been informed of the data lawmakers have already collected; the current lines, the change in population, the requirements of the Fair Districts' amendments, and federal guidelines.

"One of things we are doing concurrent with that is getting public input on all that stuff so that we are not preceding with some preconceived notion from Tallahassee what these lines should be. It is disingenuous at best for Representative Jenne to say that this process has some preconceived notion of what the results are going to be."

Jenne and others say fine, but without a proposed map the public and lawmakers have nothing to talk about. And they warn having a redistricting timeline extending into the summer of 2012 gives incumbents a benefit for that year's primary. And finally Jenne concludes, rules preventing lawmakers to engage citizens in conversation during the hearings do not serve the public's interest.

"Look, if they would let us have a dialogue with folks I would not be able to make these comments. You could literally set up 40 mannequins in front of their and have the same exact dialogue that we are getting right now. We are not allowed to talk to any of the citizens that decided to take their time and come and address the legislative body of this state and yet we are not allowed to talk to them afterward. I don't think it is a healthy public discourse because it is no discourse."

Lawmakers will conclude their summer of redistricting hearings September first and begin drawing legislative and congressional districts in January.