St. Petersburg's redrawn city council districts criticized
ST. PETERSBURG - Taking redistricting out of the hands of City Council members, as voters here did in 2011, was intended to end the controversy that often accompanies the drawing of new boundaries for the City Council. But on its first attempt at redrawing St. Petersburg's political map, a panel made up of residents has drawn fire from residents who say the proposed districts will protect incumbents, divide neighborhoods and dilute minority districts. The new map has also moved two City Council candidates into districts that are not up for election this year. The city redraws its political boundaries every 10 years based on the results of the U.S. census to ensure districts remain equal in size and correspond to voting precincts. This year, for the first time, the process was overseen by the Citizen's Redistricting Committee, a group of residents appointed by City Council members and the mayor. Today, after several public meetings, the commission is set to adopt a new map dividing the city into eight districts, the same as now, with about 30,000 residents each. The new map will be formally adopted within 60 days, unless it is unanimously rejected by the City Council.The new districts split neighborhoods such as Old Northeast and Broadwater, meaning that neighborhood associations would no longer have a single council member looking after their interests, said Darden Rice, president of the St. Petersburg League of Women Voters. The new process of drawing the districts also gives city staff too much sway, she argued. "What we didn't foresee was how much staff influenced this commission and the lack of curiosity of the commission to push back," Rice said. "Unfortunately, transparency still seems to be elusive." Rice has another reason to be frustrated with the new districts: She had planned to run this year for City Council in District 4, where incumbent Leslie Curran is term-limited. But the proposed new map puts her in District 3, where council member Bill Dudley's seat won't come up for re-election for two years. Rice said she plans to move so she can still run. David McKalip, a St. Petersburg neurosurgeon and local political activist, has already filed to run for Curran's seat and also would find himself in a new district and unable to run if the new boundaries are approved. The redistricting commission wrongly rejected some proposed maps because they would have left incumbents outside the districts they represent, he said. "There is nothing in the charter requirements that state that incumbents must be protected in their seats," McKalip said. But not drawing the districts in that way would have meant those council members would have been unable to remain in office, said Chief Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn, who has been advising the redistricting commission. That happens at the state and federal levels, and incumbents sometimes have to run in unfamiliar areas and move to stay in office. "When voters adopted this charter amendment, I don't think they intended to give nine people the power to remove city councilors from office," Winn said. Under the city charter, the city is required to have at least two districts where minorities make up a majority of the population. Three of the proposed districts meet that requirement; but in two of those, the percentage of minorities is just fractionally over the 50 percent mark. That could mean less opportunity for minority candidates, Rice said. "It violates the spirit of the charter," she said. A public hearing on the new districts will be held at 5 p.m. today in the City Council Chamber at City Hall, 175 Fifth St. N.
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