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Fla. legislators give redistricing, ‘Fair Districts’ hearing in Sarasota

Hundreds of Sarasota and Manatee county residents turned out Tuesday evening for one of the state Legislature’s final public redistricting hearings. Many of the attendees criticized the Florida House for intervening in a lawsuit to stop one of the “Fair Districts” amendments and urged the 34 lawmakers assembled to present map proposals this fall so that the process doesn’t drag on into next summer. #

State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Destin, managed the majority of the meeting, recognizing the 109 attendees who signed up to speak. Representatives from the League of Women Voters, Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida and Unidos Now all addressed the panel. #

Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent was the first to speak, asking the Legislature to work swiftly so that supervisors of election around the state have time to prepare for the 2012 elections. “We will be more likely to make a mistake” if wrangling over the redistricting maps stretches into next summer, Dent said. #

“I think what’s concerning about tonight … is the perception here that the game is fixed,” said former Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner, speaking on behalf of Unidos Now. He described a “sense of mistrust with government in our hometown and home state.” #

Kirschner then called for the Legislature to end the practice of gerrymandering. “When you have competition, I think it breeds honesty in the process,” he said, instructing the panel to “create a competitive marketplace where ideas matter and gerrymandering doesn’t.” #

There was also direct criticism of state House District 55, a largely African-American district that stretches from downtown Sarasota through Manatee County and across the Sunshine Skyway to St. Petersburg, and congressional District 16, which passes all the way from Port Charlotte on the Gulf Coast to Jupiter on the East Coast. ”Why do we need to separate us by all these different demographics?” one man asked. “We are supposed to be one nation. We are supposed to be a melting pot.” #

But four residents of Newtown, a mostly African-American North Sarasota neighborhood, asked that the redistricting committee continue to include the community in the St. Pete-based House District 55, an arrangement they said gives them a voice. State Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said the difference of opinion over 55 illustrates the challenges the redistricting committee faces. #

Several participants called on the Florida House to quit the lawsuit challenging Amendment 6, one of the “Fair Districts” amendments intended to end gerrymandering. Both “Fair Districts” measures were approved by 66 percent of Sarasota County voters last fall. ”Drop the lawsuit,” one man said. “Stop fighting the will of the people.” #

The three-hour event was held at New College of Florida, situated in an area of Sarasota represented by state Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who addressed the audience near the end of the meeting. ”Frankly, I’m very disappointed in our community,” the senator said, criticizing the at-times antagonistic hometown audience for what she called its “lack of civility.” She said that “paranoia” about the redistricting process was rampant. #

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