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Pinellas County residents criticize legislative redistricting process

LARGO — Critics of Florida lawmakers' approach to redistricting seats lambasted them at a testy hearing Tuesday in Pinellas County.

About 150 people attended the meeting, letting loose boos and catcalls during one of a series of hearings on new district lines for Florida.

Lawmakers aren't showing any maps beyond informal public submissions, prompting critics to call the meetings worthless. Lawmakers also continue to challenge new constitutional amendments approved by voters in 2010 to reduce political favoritism in drawing district lines.

Democrats and members of progressive groups continued to pillory the work of the panel in unusually harsh tones, even compared to past meetings, critics and lawmakers said.

"There's absolutely no reason why you should sue your constituents. What's wrong with you?" scolded Mary Lou Ambrose, a Democrat from Belleair Bluffs.

Several times, House Speaker-designee Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, cut off speakers after saying they went over their three-minute limit or were straying off topic, such as speaking about equal rights for women.

Ernest Bach, chairman of the Independent Party of Florida, had a minor standoff when he refused to step away from the microphone after he was cut off. Three security guards prodded him to leave the microphone. Muttering, he walked away after the sound was cut off.

"There you go. Have a good day," Weatherford said.

As critics lashed out at Weatherford and future Senate President Don Gaetz for opposing the 2010 amendments, Sen. Jack Latvala interrupted to object to the jabs in his own district.

"This was borderline rude, I'm sorry," Latvala, R-Clearwater, said afterward.

The three-hour hearing wasn't all tension-filled.

Nigel Watson of the American Civil Liberties Union took the microphone to support the amendments, supported by the Fair Districts group.

"I'm for foreplay — fair play," Watson said to laughter.

Lawmakers found support among Republicans and tea party activists.

"I appreciate you taking the time to do it, and not sending it off to the courts," said Pete Franco of South Pasadena.

Weatherford and Gaetz defended the hearing process, saying it was transparent and off to an earlier start than past years. By law, legislators can't vote on new districts until 2012. The lawmakers will soon finish 26 hearings held across the state.

But critics warn the expected legal challenge will stall new lines if they wait until next year, scaring challengers — to the benefit of incumbents.

"Dragging this process well into 2012 is discouraging candidates," said Rich Piper, a Democrat from near Largo who is a retired professor of government with the University of Tampa.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/DeCampTim

Pinellas County residents criticize legislative redistricting process 08/30/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 2, 2011 12:18pm]
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