06-08-2011, 12:22 PM #1
Community gets involved in county redistricting process
Community gets involved in county redistricting process
By DOTTY NIST
Although not yet settling on one redistricting map, the Walton County Redistricting Committee members have narrowed their choices to three prospective map proposals.
The decision took place at the committee's May 25 meeting at the Freeport Community Center, their third session since starting their task of developing recommendations for the redistricting of the county on April 6. The committee had also held an organizational meeting prior to that time.
In terms of attendance, there was a sharp contrast. Only a few of citizens had been present for the previous two meetings, but approximately 40 members of the public showed up for the May meeting. Several committee members expressed their appreciation for the excellent public turnout.
Ken Little, coordinator for the committee on behalf of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC), explained that the committee's task, in accordance with Florida law, is to recommend district boundaries that would make district populations as nearly equal in size as possible, based on newly obtained 2010 census numbers. Committee members had been appointed by the BCC and school board.
Walton County's population had increased by 14,443 residents since the last 10-year census, bringing the county population to 55,043. The situation facing the committee had been four districts with numbers below the perfect split number of 11,009 and one district, District 5, exceeding ideal split number by almost 45 percent.
Since 2000, District 1 has included the area of south Walton County east of U.S. 331, with District 5 consisting only of land south of the bay and west of U.S. 331. However, the area south of the bay is still 4,000 residents short of a population large enough for two districts located totally within south Walton County.
Little listed traditional criteria for drawing up districts, which consist of compactness, contiguity, respect for political subdivisions such as municipalities, respect for "communities of interest", maintenance of cores of prior districts, protection of incumbents, and compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He introduced a series of redistricting maps that the committee had reviewed, commenting on the advantages and disadvantages of each. "It's a difficult task to come up with a perfect solution," he told attendees.
"Census block lines are the big issue," said committee member Ronnie Bell. He explained that it is necessary to respect these lines and avoid splitting blocks when setting up districts. He also noted that it would be unlikely that the commissioners and school board members would vote for a plan that would take them out of their district, making them ineligible to run for office again in the district of their residence.
Bell said he was "tickled" to have so many citizens attend the meeting. "Usually we're lucky to get three or four," he said.
Bell explained that the committee would be presenting its recommendation to the BCC and the Walton County School Board, who would decide whether to approve the recommendation or not---or to possibly go with a different plan.
Bell commented that at the committee's May 4 meeting in Santa Rosa Beach, the members had expressed willingness to vote to select Map 3D.
"We were gravitating toward 3D," agreed Jim Rester, committee chairman.
Map 3D extends District 4 south across the Choctawhatchee Bay into part of what is currently District 5, splitting Miramar Beach between those two districts. Among other changes, it also establishes District 5 as a "beach district" beginning south of Scenic Gulf Drive in Miramar beach and extending all the way to Inlet Beach south of U.S. 98.
A number of attendees expressed opposition to Map 3D. Miramar Beach and Sandestin residents in attendance said they would not favor their community being divided between districts.
Sandestin resident Robin Wiesneth requested that the community be respected, particularly since it has existed for 35 years. "Just visually it does not look great," she said of Map 3D. She did thank the committee for their work and observe that they had "some great ideas."
Wiesneth also said she was not sure putting all the beach area under one district was advisable, since the beaches on the west end are "very different" from those along CR-30A and there is a difference in their stage of development.
Holiday Road resident Mike Judkins did not like the proposal because it would put him a long way from his commissioner's office in Freeport. He was of the opinion that Miramar Beach should remain the same with regard to districting.
Eastern Lake resident Brenda Rees was also in opposition to Map 3D. After the committee's May 4 meeting, Rees had drawn up her own map proposal at the Walton County Geographical Information Service (GIS) office. She told the committee members that she had focused on respect for district cores, respect for communities of interest, and keeping historic communities within the same district---and had avoided splitting up Sandestin into different districts. She was against extending District 4 across the bay, and her plan did not call for doing that.
The committee had reviewed a plan similar to the one presented by Rees, labelled Map 3A, and had agreed that it would be a good plan.
Committee member Robert Nelson explained that the committee had started to lean toward Map 3D when a representative from the south end suggested that this would be an opportunity to redistrict in a way that parts of the area south of the bay would be included in three rather than two districts, making people residing south of the bay potential candidates for three BCC and school board seats. "Jumping the bay was the only way to do that," Nelson said.
Committee member Bonnie McQuiston was in favor of Map 3D because it would give south Walton residents "the chance to field three candidates."
McQuiston observed,"Most of the problems come from the beach." She saw the combination of having three districts in which the south end would be included, one being a district composed totally of beach area, as helpful in getting those problems addressed. She thanked residents for attending the meeting.
To start narrowing down the potential map selections, committee member Robert Nelson made a motion to eliminate four maps reviewed by the committee, 2A, 3B, 3C, and 4B, from consideration. The motion was approved. Committee member Sally Merrifield moved to discard Map 4A as well, and the motion carried.
Bell moved to include Rees' map with those under consideration, and his motion was approved. Her map was labelled 4E. The result was that three maps remained for consideration by the committee, 3A, 3D, and 4E.
South Walton County residents Alan Ficarra and Matt Jones requested a motion to do away with Map 3D, but no such motion was made.
"I want to thank Brenda," Rester said. He encouraged other residents with map proposals to contact the county GIS office.
Bell commented that Rees' map would put the District 1 school board member out of her district and suggested that GIS "tweak" the map to address that issue. He also recommended having the county attorney and school board attorney examine the map proposals to identify any potential legal issues.
The map proposals may be viewed in pdf format on the Walton County web site, www.co.walton.fl.us, by selecting "Your Government," followed by "Departments and Divisions," "Geographic Information Systems," "Maps," and "Redistricting 2011." Citizens may also view the proposals at the Walton County GIS office, which is located at 45 N. 6th Street in DeFuniak Springs.
The Walton County Redistricting Committee is to continue to narrow down its choices and is expected to decide on one map proposal to be presented to the BCC and school board. They have a fall 2011 deadline to do so, but a final decision by the members could possibly take place sooner. The next committee meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. on June 29 at the Paxton Ag. Center building, which is located next to the Paxton City Hall and ball fields on U.S. 331.
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