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Senate President Don Gaetz defends secret meeting in Florida redistricting deal

TALLAHASSEE — Senate President Don Gaetz testified under oath Wednesday that it was "entirely proper" for him to meet in secret with House Speaker Will Weatherford to reach a deal over a congressional map as part of the Legislature's once-a-decade redistricting process.

Gaetz, R-Niceville, who along with Weatherford was chairman of his chamber's redistricting maps in 2011-12, told the court that he and Weatherford met twice and agreed to settle on the Senate's map design for the final joint congressional map, including a provision that boosted the number of black voters in the meandering congressional District 5, a Democrat-majority district that slices through dozens of towns to collect black voters from Jacksonville to Orlando.

"It was entirely proper, it was entirely ordinary that we would meet as two committee chairs to work out differences,'' Gaetz said during more than three hours of testimony.

The entire congressional map, particularly District 5, is being challenged as unconstitutional by a coalition of voters led by the League of Women Voters. They contend that map violates the "Fair Districts" standards added to the state Constitution by voters in 2010, which say districts may not be drawn to protect incumbents or political parties.

The plaintiffs claim the redistricting process was "conducted in the shadows with the secret involvement of partisan operatives with key decisions being made by a tiny group of legislators and staff behind closed doors" to give Republicans the advantage.

Legislators deny the claim and say there is no evidence that the closed door meetings or work of consultants influenced the outcome of the maps, which were approved on a bipartisan vote.

The case is the first time in state history that sitting legislators have been called to testify about their intentions, and the result has provided a window into legislative behavior and attitudes about transparency and public notice.

Gaetz told the court that there was no requirement for him and Weatherford to notify the public of the private meetings, though he added that "the door was open" and anyone could have walked in.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, acknowledged during testimony Tuesday that the map was the subject of an amendment introduced with no discussion by Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, chairman of the House's congressional redistricting committee after Gaetz and Weatherford had reached the deal.

The plaintiffs are awaiting a ruling from the First District Court of Appeal about whether they can use 538 pages of documents from GOP political consultant Pat Bainter to prove their case. Bainter, whose legal bills are being financed by the Republican Party of Florida, argues that the documents are trade secrets and should not be allowed.

Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis has ruled the documents are relevant but Bainter's lawyers claim that if they are used they should be sealed and the courtroom closed.

Meanwhile, plaintiffs have shown that both Gaetz and Weatherford allowed for redistricting-related emails to be deleted, even though legislators expected that their maps would be challenged in court. Gaetz was asked about the policy Wednesday by plaintiffs attorney David King.

"I'm not sure I know how to delete emails," Gaetz replied, and if they were deleted it was "not by me."

Gaetz repeated claims made by Weatherford on Tuesday that the process was the most "transparent" and inclusive in state history and that legislative leaders were not going to allow political consultants to influence the process.

"It wouldn't be useful and could be tainting to the process,'' Gaetz said.

The lawyers for the plaintiffs spent much of the day grilling Gaetz and Senate Redistricting Committee Staff Director John Guthrie about the assumptions they made when they built the maps, specifically their decision not to attempt to draft a more compact District 5. The seat is held by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville.

The new Fair Districts standards require that districts be made as compact as possible without diminishing minority voting strength.

King asked Gaetz why he didn't attempt to draw a more compact district.

Gaetz responded: "It was more important, in our judgment, to maintain a district that would make it likely that the minorities would be able to select a candidate of their choice (than it was to create a compact district).''

Gaetz said the Senate sought to raise the percentage of black voters in Brown's district to avoid a potential lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act.

Guthrie, the Senate's redistricting expert, later contradicted that claim when he testified that increasing the black population in the district was "not a necessity." He said he believed putting fewer blacks in the district — as the House had proposed — also would have withstood a legal challenge.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

Senate President Don Gaetz defends secret meeting in Florida redistricting deal 05/21/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 21, 2014 7:42pm]

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