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Time growing short as redistricting options multiply

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The Sun City Center group questioned the feasibility of combining the diverse South County communities with south and west Tampa in a single commission district.

By MELODY JAMESON

Like cells in a Petri dish, potential versions of politically important Hillsborough County commission districts are visibly reproducing as time ticks by and hard deadlines loom.

One of the latest concepts — return to a single district encompassing all of South Hillsborough - is being pushed by a coalition of South County civic, business and community groups.

The sensitive process, actually affecting four of the seven sitting county commissioners who probably will seek re-election next year as a direct result, is expected to continue to play out in a public meeting on Monday.

What’s more, the outcome of commission redistricting now could set in motion a more radical change in the board’s make-up years before the next such effort is scheduled for consideration in 2021.

Triggered by the decennial U.S. population census, the once-every-10-years reapportionment of local, state and federal elected representative districts got underway here earlier this spring with public review first of four possible versions of the four county commission districts. The county-level process must be completed by the absolute deadline of July 15.

Tweaked boundaries of the four districts were presented in the forms of four maps, developed by county staff with the use of sophisticated computer software taking into consideration population increases and other criteria, during community meetings conducted around Hillsborough in each of the four areas. The meeting series also included several public hearings conducted by the commission board.

Essentially, each version adjusts the borders of Districts 1, 2 and 4, carefully preserving appropriate outlines of district 3, as required by federal law mandating a so called “minority district” from which a minority commission candidate reasonably can be — and now is — elected.

By the time a second South County community session was held on May 26 in Sun City Center, the mapped versions had increased to six, three of them rejected out of hand by the dozen SCC leaders taking part in the review that day. The three concepts rejected by the uniformly-opposed contingent extend the eastern boundary of District 1, a Tampa Bay shoreline district stretching from Town ‘N Country to old Sun City south of Ruskin, to include Sun City Center and Kings Point which currently are part of District 4. One of the three maps also pushed the District 1 border east of U.S. 301 to encompass Valencia Lakes plus pieces of Balm and Wimauma.

The Sun City Center group questioned the feasibility of combining the diverse South County communities with south and west Tampa in a single commission district, thereby forcing representation by one individual of several very different areas and populations. They also pointed to a need for consistency with several of the stated criteria guiding reapportionment, including creation of districts with “equal population” and “in as compact a form as possible.”

A few days later, in an especially-called June 7 meeting of the SouthShore Roundtable, a South County coalition of chamber, civic and community group representatives, the members present agreed on a formal resolution calling for generation of “map options reflecting more consolidated districts with a consolidated District 4 including all of SouthShore.” For years until the early 1990s, District 4 included all of the South County.

That resolved request was presented two days later, on June 9, by Mike Peterson, an Apollo Beach attorney, to commissioners conducting one of the planned redistricting public hearings. In addition, the roundtable resolution sought in the alternative an explanation of “why such options are not legally possible or appropriate for consideration by the public and the Board of County Commissioners.”

This week Paul Dontenville, aide to At–large Commissioner Kevin Beckner, noted that the roundtable request for a consolidated District 4 well may coincide with recommendations from the Hispanic community for redrawn district lines that could reasonably enable one of that minority to gain election to the board. Beckner has instructed staff to develop another map version that meets established criteria while taking into consideration the growing Hispanic population.

This move was borne out by Dan Hardy, county GIS manager, who said early this week discussions with Hispanic leaders were underway based on their draft map, This version, constituting the eighth map and one which may produce a consolidated District 4 covering the South County, would be generated within days, he indicated.

Days are what remain in the allowed timeframe for the reapportionment process. The last scheduled public hearing is Monday (June 20), four weeks before the final redistricting product must be readied for approval by the U.S .Department of Justice. However, the upcoming Monday hearing could, if necessary, also be continued to another date prior to July 15, Dontenville suggested.

Whatever commission district lines ultimately are agreed upon, the effects on individual commissioners will be felt for more than a year ahead, noted Edith Stewart, assistant county administrator whose responsibilities include the redistricting effort. Each of the four commissioners now representing only specific districts - Sandra Murman, District 1, Victor Crist, District 2, Leslie Miller, District 3, and Al Higginbotham, District 4 – necessarily will run for re-election - with or without opposition - during the 2012 election cycle if they wish to continue their individual representations, Stewart said. Such is a requirement triggered by the decennial reapportionment under Hillsborough’s Charter, a county level constitution.

What’s more, current Commissioner Al Higginbotham, whose large District 4 now includes most of the South County, is one of two who next would be seeking a two-year term. Stewart added. Any commissioner elected to a two-year term as the result of redistricting can run subsequently for a four-year term and then for a second full term, she said.

A fifth sitting commissioner, Beckner as an at-large or countywide representative, also will be up for re-election in 2012, seeking another four-year term as part of the conventional cycle, if he chooses to run.

There’s also another aspect of the commission composition prism under the county’s charter – an altered number or designation of districts. Several years before the next decennial census and subsequent redistricting in 2021, the county’s Charter Review Board is slated to reassemble in 2015/16 on its usual five-year cycle. If asked, the 14-member board could consider and recommend a change to the number of commission districts, increasing the total number of commissioners or altering the ratio of at-large to district elected representatives within the current collection of seven.

The charter provides that such a request of the review board could be initiated by the BOCC itself through an ordinance, by the review board itself or by citizen petition. Realistically, each of the three approaches could be set in motion by citizens and eventually any change would be put to a countywide referendum vote.

Meanwhile, concerned parties across the county and in its administration are presiding over the political Petri dish, looking for something approaching cellular unity in 2011.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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