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Lawmakers hear from Wesley Chapel voters on redistricting

WESLEY CHAPEL — The Legislature brought its redistricting road show to one of the biggest hotbeds of Florida's growth Tuesday, asking Pasco voters how future political boundaries should look.

The panel of more than 30 lawmakers shed little light on what the new legislative and congressional districts will look like. They brought maps of current districts, but didn't bring proposals for new maps that people could critique.

Instead, they largely listened to residents describe their communities and urge lawmakers to follow new voter-approved restrictions.

"What we need to do is focus the Legislature on implementing the will of the people," said Mike Pheneger, president of the ACLU of Florida. He was one of more than 200 people who crowded into the gym at Wiregrass Ranch High School.

The meeting was held in the heart of mushrooming Wesley Chapel, the fastest-growing community in Tampa Bay's fastest-growing county. Future meetings will be held in Tampa and Largo.

With such explosive growth in some areas, some bay area districts have far too many residents and will have to shrink.

Consider district held by Rep. Rich Nugent, a Hernando Republican: His district includes much of central and east Pasco and part of the Villages, the central Florida retirement community. Nugent's district must shed 230,000 people, and the new lines could mean Pasco provides much of the population base for a redrawn district.

But other districts, especially those in Pinellas, didn't grow as quickly. And Pinellas likely will lose some clout because of it. New maps also should reflect the growing influence of Hillsborough's eastern suburbs, which grew much faster than Tampa's urban core.

A theme from several speakers was to respect traditional community distinctions, such as the urban strip of retirees in west Pasco and the agricultural east Pasco. Many people suggested dividing districts using the Suncoast Parkway or U.S. 41.

"Pasco County retains two distinct communities," said Ronnie Deese, an executive with the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative. "A small, urban west side and a more rural east side."

Such a move would allow two prominent state Senate candidates to run for separate seats. State Rep. John Legg of Port Richey and east Pasco egg farmer Wilton Simpson have opened campaigns to replace term-limited Sen. Mike Fasano.

Several urged lawmakers not to undermine the "Fair Districts" amendments that prohibit lawmakers from favoring a political party or incumbent and require districts to be compact.

"But, of course, we know this is political. It's inherently political," said John Russell, a liberal activist running a no-party campaign for Congress.

Added Land O'Lakes High School history teacher Kenny Blankenship, who is also active in the Pasco teacher's union: "I think it would've been a little more prudent to have some maps drawn and then take public comment on those maps."

Sen. Don Gaetz, a Panhandle Republican in line to be Senate president in 2013, said such a move would invite criticism that lawmakers are strong-arming the process. "We think there should be no preconceptions created by politicians," he said.

Several people also criticized the House joining a federal lawsuit by two minority members of Congress challenging the new guidelines for congressional districts. The House has $30 million set aside for redistricting expenses, some of which can be used on that lawsuit.

"My focus can't be on litigation," said House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "It's got to be hearing from the people of Florida and drawing maps that are legal."

Weatherford said he has no idea how courts will rule on the lawsuit and that the new maps will abide by the state constitution.

>>If you go

Redistricting meetings

Aug. 29: 4-8 p.m., Hillsborough County Commission, 601 E. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa

Aug. 30: 8-11 a.m., Epicenter at St. Pete College, 13805 58th St. N, Largo

Lawmakers hear from Wesley Chapel voters on redistricting 07/26/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 26, 2011 11:31pm]
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