Top Democrat on FL House redistricting panel calls for public hearings; no response from GOP chair

By: - October 12, 2021 5:32 pm

Broward-Dade Democratic Rep. Joe Geller, flanked at right by GOP Rep. Bob Rommel of Collier County, calls for public hearings to be included in the House redistricting process. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

The top-ranking Democrat on the Florida House Redistricting Committee on Tuesday again called for public hearings to receive citizen comments about their future voting districts, and again he was left with no such commitment from the Republican chairman.

Broward-Dade Rep. Joe Geller, a veteran member of the House of Representatives, told Redistricting Chairman Tom Leek, a Volusia County Republican, the committee should host remote, online hearings to take testimony from around the state.

Geller, other Democrats in the House and Senate, and public-interest organizations this year have repeatedly said lawmakers should treat public testimony as especially valuable in this redistricting cycle to rebuild trust lost in the last cycle.

A decade ago, after the 2010 Census, the Republican-controlled Legislature violated the FairDistricts constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2010, resulting in a four-year-long legal battle that ended in 2016 with the Florida Supreme Court rejecting the GOP-drawn maps, twice, and drawing its own. The court’s maps are based on recommendations from the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida.

Geller did not advocate Tuesday for traditional in-person hearings around the state – referred to as traveling road shows – but for online hearings, to ensure citizens are engaged in the drawing of their new voting districts, which will govern local, state and federal elections for 10 years.

“I still think that we should have a process, that I discussed with you, that is not what was done 10 years ago. The technology has changed. COVID has taught us every kind of new approach,” Geller said. “But if we had something that allowed the public to submit testimony by Zoom … it’s something that would help public confidence, and you told me you would give it some consideration.”

Geller added that lawmakers could watch the hearings via Zoom from their districts, rather than travel to Tallahassee to view them, and that the testimony could be transcribed and archived for the public record.

Leek did not respond to Geller’s comments before adjourning the meeting.

Also Tuesday, Geller asked that members’ redistricting proposals be exempt from the 2022 limit on the number of bills each legislator may file for the session that starts Jan. 11.

Under House rules, each lawmaker may be the prime sponsor of no more than seven bills, with numerous exceptions such as claim bills, appropriation projects, resolutions, and public-records exemptions. Since members assigned to the redistricting committees are expected to sponsor redistricting maps in the forms of bills, Geller said, those should not subtract from the seven slots they may use to pursue their individual priorities.

Leek was cool to the idea, saying the limit already was recently raised and that any House member may file an unlimited number of amendments to proposed maps — which he said would largely accomplish what Geller wants. “I’m not sure it gets us any place different than we are today,” Leek said.

As in the Senate Committee on Reapportionment, which met on Monday, the House Redistricting Committee has announced no plans to receive public testimony other than allowing citizens to submit proposed maps and written comments through the Legislature’s website, www.FloridaRedistricting.gov.

Senate Reapportionment Chairman Ray Rodrigues, a Lee County Republican, said on Sept. 20 and again Monday that he questions the value of holding public hearings around the state in light of changes in law that no longer mandate them.

Critics, including the League of Women Voters of Florida and the Fair Districts Coalition, said that limiting public participation to written comments submitted online is inadequate for a task as impactful as once-a-decade redistricting.

The bulk of the House committee meeting Tuesday was spent demonstrating how to use map-drawing software featured on that website.

Also, several minutes were spent discussing allegations made last week by two University of Florida political scientists that the Legislature’s map-drawing software is not user-friendly or transparent to the public. As Geller recounted the key allegations, Leek disputed each one. Geller appeared satisfied with the rebuttals, which are now part of the official public record.

The panel’s subcommittees on state House, state Senate, and congressional voting districts are to be held simultaneously Wednesday afternoon — their first meetings, last month, also were held simultaneously — despite a request from Florida Conservation Voters Deputy Director Jonathan Webber to schedule them at different times so that he and other citizens could participate in both of them.

Given the high stakes and level of controversy, Broward Democratic Rep. Evan Jenne, co-leader of the House Democratic Caucus and member of the House Redistricting Committee, predicted on Monday, “I’m certain there’s going to be lawsuits.”

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper. Contact her at [email protected]

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