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Lawmakers get an earful in Tampa on redrawing districts

TAMPA - Legislators charged with redrawing Florida's political districts got an earful Monday from the Tampa Bay area as dozens of voters chided them for waiting too late to start the actual mapping process. The committee brought its road show to Tampa's Jefferson High School in what will be the last week of public hearings. But legislators chose not to prepare any district maps before the public hearings. Close to 200 people attended the public hearing at Jefferson High School – 93 spoke during the four-hour hearing. As the hours wore on, the speakers grew more testy and state Sen. Don Gaetz grew less patient. By the end of the hearing, State Rep. Will Weatherford said he felt like a piñata.
There were a few sympathetic voices. "No matter what you do, it's like you can't win," Robin Langford said. But the majority criticized legislators, accusing them of spending millions of taxpayer dollars to challenge the Fair District Amendments – passed by voters in November to require lawmakers to put aside political interests that have resulted in meandering district boundaries and instead draw districts that are compact and reasonable. Sun City Center resident Vera Chapman was one of dozens who reminded them that voters approved Amendments 5 and 6 with 63 percent of the vote. "Stop wasting our time and our money in these sham hearings and trying to overturn (Amendments) 5 and 6," she told legislators. "I'm old enough to be your mother -- if you were my children, you'd be taken behind the woodshed, and I can assure you it would be a sharp switch I'd take to your hineys." The committee website has a mapping program that's so easy even a 13-year-old can do it. One 13-year-old did present a map he had compiled with his mom and his little sister – earning him a standing ovation from the panel and the audience. Prior to Monday's hearing, three from Hillsborough County had submitted maps, including22-year-old David Kulcsar, political science major at the University of South Florida, said the state's current maps make him angry and disgusted. "I'm trying to keep the counties from being split up too much," he said. But at Monday's hearing, Patricia Hall, a member of Hillsborough's League of Women Voters, expressed skepticism about such efforts and told legislators to "get real." "The maps submitted by the public will not be voted on," she said. "These hearings are a charade intended to make the public believe they have input. The real mapping will be done behind closed doors." The League's president, Mickey Castor, complained about the timeline, saying it doesn't allow enough time for legal challenges that will surely be filed, and it will create chaos for the 2012 elections. Committee members themselves won't begin to draw maps until they meet again in Tallahassee in September. The Legislature will convene two months earlier than usual– in January – to vote on the new maps. Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said legislators will get out final maps in time for candidates to qualify to run. Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he would call on the Senate Democrats to present their map at the first committee meeting. He said he wants to "cut the rat tails off these districts" but acknowledged it won't be easy to draw compact districts that protect minority voting interests. Weatherford, who chairs House Redistricting committee, said he intends to call for a vote on the maps well before the session ends in March, and he pledged that the committee would uphold Amendments 5 and 6. "We are going to honor it – no matter what the litigation is going on," he promised. Weatherford said he also took to heart comments from speakers about their own districts. Several complained about the current configuration of the majority-Democrat 11th Congressional District, which hugs the coastlines of Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. "Congressional districts may cross bodies of water," former county commissioner Chris Hart said. "But I can tell you that doesn't sit well with people in Hillsborough county." Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a Republican, has already announced plans to challenge incumbent Kathy Castor in 2012. Michael E. Pheneger, president of the ACLU of Florida, told legislators "if you all produce a set of districts where each of you is not absolutely assured of being reelected, than maybe you have done the job." A few speakers addressed their specific district issues. Tampa resident Wanda Rachel pleaded with the committee to protect minority districts, while a contingent of speakers from east Hillsborough wanted to be in a district that recognizes the impact of the agricultural industry. Plant City resident Jack Wolff suggested using Interstate 75 as a dividing line between two Hillsborough County congressional districts, creating a more urbanized western district and a rural eastern district. The listening tour continues a 8 a.m. today at the EpiCenter at St. Pete College in Largo.

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