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Divided Hernando School Board goes along with county's redistricting map

BROOKSVILLE — The political district boundaries for the Hernando School Board and County Commission will align after all.

A divided Hernando County School Board on Tuesday approved a controversial redistricting map that the local NAACP branch has said it plans to challenge in federal court.

Chairwoman Cynthia Moore and members Matt Foreman and John Sweeney voted for the map the County Commission approved last week. Members Dianne Bonfield and James Yant dissented.

Sweeney said he felt comfortable that the map meets requirements set by state statute — compact, contiguous and equal in population — and noted that attorneys for both the School Board and the County Commission have said the plan would be legally defensible.

"My mind's been set at ease," Sweeney said.

The map is an amended version of one approved in a November workshop by the County Commission and School Board. It uses 2010 census data to make some minor adjustments to even out the population in the five districts.

The original map drew fire from Republican Jason Sager, who had announced his plan to run for the District 3 commission seat the day before the workshop. Sager told commissioners that he should have been considered, as other prequalified candidates had been. The map would have moved Sager's residence from District 3 to District 5, and the commission agreed on Dec. 13 to alter the map to put Sager's home back into District 3.

The School Board was slated to vote on the amended map at its regular meeting later that night. Citing concerns about the potential legal challenge, the board voted to schedule Tuesday's special meeting to give them time to do research and consider options.

County Commissioner John Druzbick on Tuesday asked the School Board to approve the map to lessen confusion for voters. School Board and County Commission elections are countywide, but having aligned districts makes it easier for voters to remember whose district they reside in, said Druzbick, who has said he plans to run for re-election and will face Sager in a Republican primary. Druzbick was on the School Board in 2003 when the board and commission districts were aligned.

"The public has mass confusion when they are not the same," he said.

Hernando County Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams said last week that her office would incur some additional operational costs if the districts are not the same.

One of the School Board's other options was a redistricting plan proffered by the Hernando branch of the NAACP. That plan, branch president Paul Douglas has argued, is better because it is not based on where candidates live and more evenly distributes the population among the five districts.

Douglas, who also is running for the commission's District 5 seat and said he planned to resign his president's post today to avoid a conflict with the NAACP bylaws, once again urged the School Board to approve his group's plan and avoid the legal quagmire the county's "gerrymandered" map will provoke.

The group plans to file suit, claiming the map is in violation of the Voting Rights Act, Douglas said.

"We have lawyers, too, and they say it's not legal, but it is challengeable," Douglas said. "The county is flat-out wrong and is trying to drag the School Board into the violations incurred by what they've done."

Yant said he still worried about getting the district involved in a lawsuit, and Bonfield said she favored the NAACP map because it most evenly distributes the population.

The amended county map appears to be defensible, interim counsel Dennis Alfonso told the board.

"Just about any map you would accept would be subject to challenge by someone," Alfonso said.

At last week's meeting, Foreman, an attorney, voiced concerns about the county map. After talking to several other attorneys, he said he felt more comfortable.

"I do believe the county map passes muster," he said. But Foreman also repeated — and further explained — a comment he made last week. It's not just the final version of the map that caused concerns, he said, but how the commission arrived there by acquiescing to Sager and then tossing a new map to the School Board to consider at the last minute.

"Make up your mind and stop considering people who are trying to choose who they're running against," Foreman said.

The episode, he added, illustrates a need to improve communication between the two governmental bodies.

"I think this process would have been a lot easier had the School Board been called back to discuss this further with the County Commission," Foreman said. "None of us operates in a vacuum, and I think in the future that's an important consideration to take."

Divided Hernando School Board goes along with county's redistricting map 12/20/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 20, 2011 6:51pm]
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