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Redistricting shouldn't cause a fight here

New boundaries based on census figures must be drawn by Dec. 31. The county's elected officials say gerrymandering is unlikely.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 2001


Every decade, with the census, comes the inevitable debate about how to redraw districts for elected national, state and local government seats.

The jockeying has begun. Will state Senate President Pro Tem Ginny Brown-Waite get a Hernando County-centered congressional seat drawn for her? Will House Majority Leader Mike Fasano have a state Senate seat crafted for him?

Even large counties, such as Hillsborough and Miami-Dade, have begun the delicate dance around how to design single-member county commission seats that balance their dense and diverse populations equitably.

But here in Hernando County, the power plays have not materialized. Few expect that they will.

In fact, county commissioners and School Board members expressed surprise when reminded that, if their district populations have grown out of whack, they must complete their redistricting by Dec. 31.

If any dispute surfaces, they said, it probably will center on Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams' suggestion that the commission and School Board adopt the same district boundaries.

That idea faces a legal snag. The state prohibits local governments from drawing an incumbent out of his or her district; School Board members Jim Malcolm and Sandy Nicholson both live in County Commission District 2.

"It's fine with me if they want to look at it, as long as they realize that if we change the School Board's (lines), we'll have to change the County Commission's, too," Nicholson said.

Williams floated the notion, like her predecessor Ann Mau, as a way to reduce confusion among voters.

"The thing of it is, (candidates) all run countywide, even though they represent a certain district," Williams said. "I just think it would be less confusing for the voters. They could remember they're in School Board District 1 and County Commission District 1."

Such a move also would save the elections office time and money when it draws its precinct lines and voting maps, she said.

"It'd just be easier for all concerned," Williams said.

The main reason for redrawing districts is to keep an even population balance in each district -- within 5 percent. New census figures showed that at least one County Commission district has grown too large in comparison to the others, said David Miles of the county Planning Department.

Those numbers, and not politics, should drive the decisions, School Board and County Commission members agreed.

"Paranoia on a field of suspicion is so typical" in politics, Commissioner Mary Aiken said. But "figures don't lie. If rules are made to follow those figures, then we're going to have to abide by those."

School Board member John Druzbick said he had one concern: The districts should have equal populations to ensure fair treatment of every resident.

"I don't think it is (political) . . . unless there are certain people that are afraid someone will run against them," Commissioner Diane Rowden said.

That is what happened in 1995, when the commission redrew its boundaries to enlarge District 1, on the east side of the county. Commissioner Pat Novy decried the decision, claiming her adversaries on the commission conspired to encourage more people to run against her in 1996. (She won handily.)

Two years earlier, Rowden's husband, Jay, accused the School Board of political games when it redrew boundaries. He claimed the board designed a district to protect member Bob Flato from a 1994 challenge. (Flato lost to Steve Galaydick.)

Malcolm denied that politics played a role then, and he said they should not now. Gerrymandering might be commonplace in drawing state and national districts, he said, but it is unlikely to occur locally.

That is especially true for the School Board, he said, because the job is non-partisan, and thus the parties will not have a vested interest.

Drawing commission seats should not create much infighting, either, Rowden said.

"It's not like it's single-member districting. And if you get districted out, you can run in that district and move," she said, referring to a common practice in Hernando County. "If you really have your heart set on it, you can do it."

Commissioners already get calls from residents who live outside their districts, Commissioner Betty Whitehouse said. "Hopefully, we're meeting the needs of everybody."

She welcomed the idea of giving part of her mostly rural east-county district to another commissioner so she can share rural issues with a colleague.

Because redistricting appears to have little controversy attached to it, County Planning Director Larry Jennings said, it should be accomplished quickly. He had no plans to begin drawing maps until the summer.

"I don't see it as being a significant technical issue," he said. "I'll leave it to you to determine whether it's a significant political issue."

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