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Politics / Issues

Critics Question Florida's Good Grade for Redistricting

Rod Smith.jpg
Rod Smith, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party said, "The maps were what the senate leadership wanted to take place, but not the public."

Florida ranks as a C- for its susceptibility to corruption, according to a new study by the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and WLRN in Miami. The state did much better in its sub-grade for redistricting. But as WLRN reporter Rick Stone reports, some question how that can be possible.

When Republican Senator Paula Dockery got her first look at her newly redrawn Polk County district, she was horrified.

"You could tell some areas  that looked very squirrelly," she said.

Legislators drew this decade's district lines under the new Fair Districts constitutional amendment that called for cities and counties to be contained, intact, within regularly shaped districts that favor neither parties nor candidates.

But Polk had been dismembered. The central Florida county was in four pieces, and its main city, Lakeland, cut in half -- most of it in a district with culturally and geographically distant Manatee County, 70 miles to the west on the Gulf Coast.

"I can look at this map and tell you now, it's not going to pass Fair Districts," Dockery said.

She says she asked the chairman of the Senate redistricting committee, "So why don't we change it now and avoid the problem?" and the answer was, "Why didn't you have an amendment?"

By "amendment," the chairman was talking about a substitute map. Dockery had been invited to take advantage of two of the five openness and transparency features that comprised Florida's A+ rating for redistricting from the Center for Public Integrity.

Like any Florida citizen, she was entitled to visit the website, download the redistricting software, draw herself a new state map of 40 Senate districts, and then submit if for consideration. Open, transparent and, for Paula Dockery, totally meaningless.

"Number one, I'm not a computer expert. Number two, I know Polk county so I know when you're splitting up communities," she said. "I don't know that for many of the other 67 counties."

Also, Republican-controlled committees held informational meetings statewide. They were hearings to accept public input were scheduled, and the time and place of the meetings and hearings were publicized.

Rod Smith, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, was not impressed.

"I really think the openness and transparency is whether we transformed the information gathered from citizens into something that reflected their will," Smith said. "I believe the senate maps did just the opposite.. the maps were what the senate leadership wanted to take place, but not the public."

The Florida Supreme Court agreed with Smith. It took notice that every single incumbent Senator was drawn into a safe district, that eight of the 40 districts violated the Fair Districts amendments and that the plan as a whole was designed to perpetuate Republican dominance.

The court threw out the Senate map and the Legislature is back in Tallahassee drawing a new one. An open and transparent system had yielded a corrupt product.

"Did we just ask the wrong question?" asked Dan Christensen, the investigative reporter hired by the Center for Public Integrity to judge the state's integrity performance.

He determined the rankings according to CPI criteria. "Openness" and "transparency" have always been counted as prerequisites for government integrity. But now, he wonders.

"Maybe it's just that transparency can be overrated as a way of preventing shenanigans.," he said. "It certainly looks like transparency was no match for determined and partisan senators with an eye on protecting their own."

The re-drawing of Senate district boundaries is now proceeding under the court's scrutiny. And that may be what really matters...oversight, more than transparency.

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