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Lawmakers kick off redistricting hearings despite criticism

By James Call

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-974485.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Florida lawmakers will hold public hearings in 26 communities this summer in
preparation for redrawing the state's political map. James Call reports, the first of the redistricting forums was held Monday at the state capitol.

The redistricting road show will continue this week with stops in Panama City, Fort Walton Beach and Pensacola in the panhandle and conclude in September in Clewiston. Lawmakers are promoting the hearings as an opportunity for citizens to tell us Your Story. That means citizens talk, lawmakers listen. And critics say it's a sham. Hollywood Representative Evan Jenne is a Democrat and disagrees with the rules adopted by the Republican leadership.

"I think personally, it should be a conversation and a discussion some sort of dialogue between the folks and they elected to serve them up here. And it really turned into just people talking and we're not allowed to engage them in sandy shape or form. I think it is a bit of a disservice from a fiscal point of view why have we all come up here? We could have just watched it on TV. If we're not allowed to engage with the public in any shape or form."

Redistricting is as political act as there is. Lawmakers draw the districts lines in which they will run for office. Every ten years new statehouse and congressional districts are redrawn to reflect changes in population. Lawsuits are usually filed to protest the decisions. This year Senator Don Gaetz is leading the senate delegation in redrawing the maps and he said the decision for lawmakers to listen to citizens and not speak is a wise one.

"You saw how many legislators were there today as part of the hearing. Imagine if on every issue we would have allowed every legislator to make a speech or offer observations or comments then we would not have gotten through with a third of the people who actually wanted to speak. Imagine the criticism there. If I have to choose between criticism that politicians didn't get enough time to speak and voters didn't get enough chance to be heard I will take the criticism you just articulated every day and twice on Sunday."

If the first hearing in Tallahassee is any indication Gaetz and his colleagues will have a long hot summer of hearings. They plan to visit 26 communities by September first. Still though, critics question what it will accomplish. Deidre McNabb is president of the Florida League of Women Voters. The group supports opportunities for citizens to have input on policy decisions but says there are problems with the rules and procedures lawmakers adopted for redistricting hearings.

"But it has to be substantive public input. And the way this has been designed we have a large amount of money being spent by taxpayers for a listening tour where the legislators are not providing a substantive conversation because they haven't drawn maps."

Florida grew by almost 3 million people in the past decade. Legislative districts will have to be redrawn to include more people. Senate districts will grow by 70 thousand people, House districts by 23 thousand. Representative Will Weatherford is leading the house delegation and stands by the decision to take public testimony before drawing any maps. He said that was the advice given to lawmakers by some critics almost 18 months ago.

"They were telling us one thing a year and half ago they are telling us something else now. And I think what they said in the beginning when they testified before the Florida House and the Florida Senate in a joint hearing they very clearly stated that the public input be heard first. That is exactly what we are going to do and we will have better maps for it."

Florida will also gain two new congressional seats because of population growth. Lawmakers need to come up with new districts in time for the 2012 August primary. The current schedule has them passing a plan during next spring's Legislative session.