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South County citizens far from sold on commission redistricting plans

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Given the chance, residents here would draw entirely different county commission districts.

By MELODY JAMESON

Sun City Center – Given the chance, residents here – and perhaps across the South County region – would draw entirely different county commission districts.

This was among the strong indications signaled by the largest of the interested groups which assembled Thursday for a public session called by the county administration and conducted in the retirement center’s Community Hall. Only about 35 persons attended the morning meeting to discuss county commission redistricting.

Examination and potential re-drawing of county commission district boundaries is the first of several re-districting concepts that citizens in Florida will undertake as the result of new population figures made available following the decennial census of 2010. In addition to county commission boundaries, Floridians will consider state representative and state senate districts as well as boundaries of the U.S. Representatives’ districts in months to come.

Last week, however, the focus was the four commission districts which produce citizens’ first – and usually closest - layer of elected officials. Eleven area residents, most of them SCC retirees but including an Apollo Beach homeowner, pondered six different maps outlining the four districts – and found all of them wanting. The problems, they said, are multiple, some of them created by the county’s violation of its own criteria.

Seven major guidelines comprise the criteria for reapportioning population within the four districts, according to Hillsborough’s Redistricting Taskforce. Among them is the call to make districts compact and contiguous, equal in population, taking into consideration natural boundaries and geographic neighborhoods, drawn to minimize public confusion regarding voting, using official census counts, and maximizing the potential for election of a minority candidate from one district.

Because the last guideline is so crucial for mandated compliance with the U.S. Voting Rights Act and because existing District III including much of urban and East Tampa as well as Progress Village complies with the law, redistricting now consists primarily of adjusting current boundaries of the four districts rather than making any wholesale changes, indicated Mary Helen Farris, a county attorney familiar with redistricting matters.

But substantial change is exactly what some of the participants in the Thursday session wanted. They first rejected three of the six maps showing the long narrow strip of District I running parallel with the east shore of Tampa Bay but now extended east of I-75 to include all of Sun City Center.

Joye Gasser, long time SCC resident and community activist, for example, said that while the county staff “did an excellent job of reworking the numbers to create equally balanced populations” in the districts, there was not sufficient consideration given the commonality of community interests. She called for keeping “all of South County together.”

To do so, she suggested adding that part of District I that lies south of the Alafia River to District IV and then balancing the population increase by removing and redistributing that part of District VI north of the Alafia River to another district, perhaps District II. Such a re-arrangement would serve to preserve the common interests of the South County communities compactly and contiguously rather than lumping into one district the very different populations from South Tampa and South Hillsborough.

Apollo Beach resident Fred Jacobsen echoed some of Gasser’s sentiments and pointed to a need for the county to actually adhere to the criteria it is promoting. For example, he noted the Alafia River forms a natural boundary between the Tampa-Brandon-Valrico metroplex and the more suburban or rural South County. And, creating a district wholly of the South County from Tampa Bay east to the Polk County line and from the Alafia South to the county line shared with Manatee County would produce one both compact and inclusive, with shared similarities, while eliminating part of one – in District I – which is neither compact nor similar.

Jacobsen also noted that while District III may be able to successfully elect an African-American candidate to Hillsborough’s BOCC, it is unlikely that the same would be true for a similarly interested representative of the growing Hispanic population in the county. In District III, the designated minority district, he posited, an unlikely scenario would be required to elect a Hispanic. It would take a slate of two African-American candidates and a Hispanic, with the two Black candidates splitting the vote thereby allowing a majority vote for the Hispanic, to elect a Hispanic to the commission from the minority district, he asserted.

None of the proposed and mapped commission district boundaries do what constituents really want – a start-from-scratch approach applied creatively to the four existing districts with the criteria and new population figures taken into consideration, Jacobsen suggested.

It is especially clear that Sun City Center – now about 20,000 strong – does not want to be lumped in with the diverse District I as some of the proposals would have it, said Ed Barnes, current president of the SCC Community Association.
Moreover, he added, it’s important that similar communities be kept in the same district – whether in the Greater Tampa area or in South Hillsborough. The new growth, whenever the recession ends, is going to be in the South County and probably before the next census is taken, he noted.

Don Schings, a former CA director, summed up the SCC contingent sentiment as “overwhelmingly in favor of staying in District IV.” In addition, he acknowledged there’s considerable interest in creating “a South County district” but noted “it may be impossible to achieve.”

And the strong support for a compact district encompassing the South County region has nothing to do with the commissioners currently representing Districts I and IV, he cautioned. Residents like both Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Sandra Murman, he pointed out, but are convinced a district composed of similar communities with shared values and goals better serves everyone’s interests.

In view of the disparity in citizen viewpoint with the proposals offered by the redistricting taskforce, Schings, president of the SouthShore Roundtable, said he plans to call a special meeting of the group. The roundtable is composed of community representatives from across the South County region. That session is set for June 7, he said.

Two days later, on June 9, a public hearing before Hillsborough’s board of commissioners is scheduled to consider redistricting alternatives.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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