Justice Department okays county redistricting map
By BILL VARIAN
Residents of Ruskin now get to vote on the same Hillsborough County Commission candidates as people who live in Town 'N Country.
The U.S. Department of Justice notified the county Monday that it has officially accepted changes to voting district boundaries without objection. That means that the boundaries adopted by commissioners in July are now officially in effect.
"I'm delighted because it confirms what we believed, and that was that we met all the criteria that the Justice Department demanded," said Hillsborough Commission Chairwoman Pat Frank, who devised the plan.
Sam Horton, president of the Hillsborough branch of the NAACP, which filed a complaint with the Justice Department last week, said it is evaluating its options.
"We have it in our national office before our national attorneys," Horton said.
The NAACP has said that the approved map wasn't properly advertised to allow public input. The civil rights group also said the new map unfairly removes black neighborhoods in Thonotosassa and Seffner from the central Tampa voting district, weakening their vote. Residents of those areas also filed a complaint.
The central Tampa District 3 seat has the heaviest concentration of black residents, at 39 percent, with the new boundaries. It is represented by Democrat Tom Scott, who is black.
The NAACP still might file a legal challenge of the plan. In his letter to the Hillsborough County Attorney's Office, Joseph D. Rich, the Justice Department voting section chief, said his office reserves the right to re-examine the map if new concerns surface.
"They're preserving the right to change their mind," said Assistant County Attorney Ken Tinkler, who worked closely on redistricting.
The most striking boundary change affects the District 1 seat held by Republican Stacey Easterling. On the newly approved map, it now extends into central Tampa, and along the southeastern Hillsborough County shoreline of Tampa Bay into Ruskin and Sun City. Under the old boundaries, District 1 was mostly confined to south and west Tampa.
What was also striking was the way the proposal was passed.
Commissioners had established a lengthy process of public hearings, during which about a dozen redistricting proposals had been aired, most of them crafted by county staff. The commission then advertised two finalists for a final public hearing, both of which had their own camps of public opponents.
The day before that public hearing in July, Frank introduced her own proposal, the one ultimately accepted by the Justice Department. She said it was designed to split like-minded neighborhoods least and was patterned after Hillsborough School Board voting districts. It was approved on a 4-3 vote.
It created the southward extension of District 1 -- Easterling's seat -- and shifted the Thonotosassa and Seffner areas into District 4, the largely rural southeastern Hillsborough seat held by Republican Ronda Storms.
Scott said Monday he was "shocked" that the Justice Department didn't take the late timing of the proposal, which he voted against, into consideration.
"If we're going to have public hearings for months, and at the last minute introduce a whole new drawing without any public hearing, then we're in trouble," Scott said. "The whole concept of having minority districts will be in trouble in the future."
Under the Hillsborough County charter, commissioners must adopt new voting district boundaries every 10 years to reflect population changes revealed in the census. The commission has four seats that represent geographic regions. The other three commissioners are chosen countywide.
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