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Pinellas County's redistricting off to a slow and somewhat secret start

Based on new census data, Tampa Bay area counties have unveiled new voting districts and hosted public hearings to collect input.

But not Pinellas County.

County Administrator Bob LaSala met privately with commissioners one-on-one to show them the county's new maps.

But county officials agreed to make them public only after the St. Petersburg Times pressed for them under Florida's open records law. The seven-page document proposes to keep the three at-large districts intact. Three of the four single-member districts would change, but only slightly. No past drafts of maps were included.

LaSala said he doesn't feel like his county is behind just because other counties are further along in the process. "There wasn't a schedule we were working to achieve," he said.

Because Pinellas didn't have the population gains that others did, redistricting had a lower priority than budget debates and other subjects. The county's population of 916,542 is about 5,000 less than in 2000. With allowable variances, adjusting maps was simple, county officials said.

No dates for public hearings are set, but LaSala expects the approval to take place this year in advance of next year's elections.

The silence compared to other counties bothers St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse.

Zigzagging lines of some commission districts don't always correspond to boundaries of some communities, he said.

He said he doesn't like the way the county merely tweaked some districts, rather than starting from scratch.

"To me it would have made more sense to start with a clean slate with some assumption and natural borders and cities. Rather than, 'This is what we've got, we've got to move a couple thousand people here and there,' " Nurse said.

Calling the county's approach "confusing to the public," Nurse said, "It doesn't speak well in terms of open government."

Pinellas County commissioners didn't seem bothered by the redistricting process.

"I've had a couple updates," said Commissioner Nancy Bostock, who will run for re-election in 2012. "It's looking mighty unspectacular if you compare it to all the consternation about the state redistricting."

LaSala said his discussions with commissioners didn't result in changes behind the scenes before the public saw proposed maps.

Working up to last week, the county also had to make sure calculations matched legal requirements, LaSala said.

"We weren't making decisions," LaSala said. "We were just talking about mechanics. The changes are so slight that unlike a growth county, that this was fine-tuning."

Talks, though, weren't all about a vague approach.

For example, Lealman is now divided between commissioners John Morroni and Ken Welch's districts. Morroni and Welch said they told the county administrator that the community should be kept intact and placed in one district.

The new map shows more than 5,000 people shifting into Welch's largely St. Petersburg district.

The other change involves the Bardmoor neighborhood in west Pinellas. It would go from Commissioner Karen Seel's district to Morroni's to finish balancing population in the districts.

In a deal with the Pinellas County School Board, commission districts will mirror school districts, too.

Small tweaks can have big effects.

Bostock paid close attention to district lines last year when she and husband, Craig, bought a home, moving from St. Petersburg. They eventually found a home in Treasure Island that was still in her boundaries.

"I was certainly more conscientious than most," she said.

But keeping the current lines can dash hopes, too.

Former state Rep. Janet Long, a Democrat from Seminole, has floated running next year against Bostock. Bostock is one of three at-large members who live in one district but are elected countywide. Long recently suggested redistricting might offer her an opening to run.

However, Long's precinct will remain in the at-large district held by Commissioner Neil Brickfield, whom she promised not to oppose. Her single-member district is held by Morroni, who isn't on the ballot until 2014.

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

Pinellas County's redistricting off to a slow and somewhat secret start 08/13/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 16, 2011 8:57pm]
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