The Redistricting commission was given a hastily created new set of options today to redraw districts without making incumbency the top priority. They rejected the notion. City Staff member Brian Capers stated the two options provided for redistricting without retaining incumbents in their districts were “not exhaustive”. Two were presented, one of which removed seven of the eight members of the current Council and another that removed four of the current members. Members of the commission repeatedly expressed their distaste for removing any current incumbents stating that this would harm the will of the voters from prior elections. Some expressed that retaining incumbents should not necessarily be the guiding principle. Notable were members David Herzik (Kennedy appointment) and Dan Kunitzer (Gerdes). They indicated that just as they are not supposed to consider the addresses of candidates who may be interested in running, it didn’t seem to make sense that they should consider the addresses of current Council members. The members then listed their top three preferences for redistricting options – all of which retain current members in their districts.
The Commission, which declined to allow any public comment at the meeting, was given two and only two options for redistricting without considering the addresses of the incumbents, so called “non-residence” maps. They were not given options for a “non-residence” map of current city Council members based only on the members up for election this year (districts 2, 4, 6 and 8). They were also not provided a “non-residence” map without considering the residence location of the two council members who are not eligible to run again due to term limits (Leslie Curran-4 and Jeff Danner-8). They then began an exercise to rank the “top three” preferences of the committee to present to the public prior to an upcoming public comment hearing which has not yet been scheduled. Those top preferences are listed in the document available for download here at the Sun Beam Times and include the original plans 1, 2 and 5. This despite the presentation of a 6th plan to them today that will be placed on this site as soon as possible. That plan also protected incumbents. Public Comment will occur at 5 pm, Tuesday 1/22 at an undetermined location with two minute speaker limits.
The meeting began with City Attorney Mark Winn indicating that it was not a requirement that the city Council members must remain in their current districts. He denied ever stating that and indicated he was sorry he was misunderstood. He then went on to say it would be a difficult scenario if they didn’t stay in their current seats. For instance under one “non-residence” scenario, seven members would be moved out of the district and then only the one city council member remaining would select the other members. He also pointed out that the City Council members had to approve their final map, implying that they would not approve a map where so many were moved out of their districts. His contention that the “residency” retention requirement was not mandatory contradicts official documents circulated to the commission on January 8th. At that meeting the commission was given a set of criteria for redistricting. Listed on that set of criteria were the following statements: “Other Requirement: Although not in the City Charter, must adhere to the following: 1. Each current City Council member must remain in their current City Council District”. This is reiterated in the official minutes of the January 8th meeting that were approved at the meeting today (1/15) as follows: “Council Members must live in the district they represent and because of this requirement, if they are redistricted out of their current district; [sic] they are basically put out of office.” (emphasis added to all quotes).
The Redistricting Commission is suffering from two problems:
- They are being misled and not fully informed by City Staff. The Staff can give them more options for redistricting without respecting incumbency that don’t remove a majority of members (see below).
- They are collectively more interested in maintaining incumbents in their own districts for reasons that are unclear and unfounded.
The City Staff has many other options it could present to the Comission for redistricting without retaining recumbent in their seats. As staffer Brian Capers (Economic Development Analyst) pointed out the presented options were “not exhaustive”. That is a vast understatement. The Commission should be allowed to look at options as follows:
- More Redistricting options with no “incumbent residence” requirement. This would allow more options that don’t put 4-7 members out of office.
- More no “incumbent residence” requirement that included ONLY the seats of Jeff Danner (district 8) and Leslie Curran (district 4) who will be “termed out” of their seats. They could merely leave the Council early with replacements made by appointment and then the elections run as scheduled in August (primary) and November (General).
- More no “incumbent residence” requirement that include ONLY the seats of members of district 2,4,6 and 8 since those are all up for election this year.
The Commission is unnecessarily limiting its options. It is serving the interests of elected politicians and incumbents and granting far too much power to long time city staffers to shape the future of the City of St. Petersburg elections. It is serving the political class at the expense of the individual citizen. The entire purpose of the Citizens Commission was to move power from the hands of elected politicians and government bureaucrats and place it in the hands of the people. The Commission needs to reconsider its approach. It is correct to say that no person, no candidate and no special interest should have undue influence on the process of redistricting. No candidate, be they incumbent or otherwise, should be given any special treatment in the redistricting process. Yet it was made clear today that the Commission would give special treatment to politicians and incumbent (future candidates), in establishing the new districts for the City of St. Petersburg.