How the redistricting mess in St. Petersburg came about — and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again

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Editor’s note: The following is a guest post from St. Pete Polls’ Matt Florell.

I followed the redistricting process in the City of St. Petersburg closely. I went to the meetings when I could, read the meeting minutes, and even submitted my own rules-compliant district map to the commission.

There were several problems related to the redistricting process that lead to what has happened recently with candidates in both District 2 and District 4, and I will try to detail them here.

The first problem with the redistricting process was timing. Back in May of 2012, the city’s legal staff sent out a memo saying that the precinct maps were available from the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections, and that the Redistricting Commission as now outlined by the recently amended city charter could begin it’s work redrawing the maps for the city’s eight council districts. A redrawing of the maps was necessary because of the large number of precincts that were consolidated by the Supervisor of Elections, as well as the city’s population loss as shown in the 2010 census. In spite of this May 2012 memo, nothing happened with the redistricting commission until a new memo was sent to City Council members in November 2012 telling them they had to submit their candidates for the redistricting commission that must start in December 2012. It was seven months after the city received the redistricting report before the Redistricting Commission was formed. Because of it’s late start, the commission would have to meet over the holidays, resulting in lost meeting time and less attendance at meetings by commission members. Another result of this late start was that potential candidates who were already starting to file to run for council had no idea if they were going to live in the district they filed to run in by the time the redistricting process was over.

The second problem was the rules for redistricting in the city charter. There are no special provisions in the charter for elections happening during a redistricting year. At the state level in a redistricting year, the residency requirements are relaxed. This was done because the redistricting process can go on longer than intended, and if there were strict residency requirements, nobody would be able to file to run for office until the new district maps were finalized. It just makes sense to add a similar provision to our City’s charter.

The third problem was the consolidation of precincts by the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections. This consolidation reduced the number of precincts in the city, and greatly reduced the flexibility the city had in drawing its districts along precinct lines. The city’s legal staff informed the redistricting commission that according to the city’s charter, they had to keep district boundaries along precinct lines if at all possible. Nobody involved in crafting the current charter could have foreseen this change, this charter requirement was written when there were more precincts, and the precincts that were there were much smaller. Now that this has happened, it should be addressed by the charter, allowing for more flexibility in splitting county-defined precinct boundaries.

The fourth problem is that according to the city’s legal staff, the city charter infers that the new district mapping must be drawn to keep sitting council members in their districts, making the options for new district maps even less flexible. At the state level there are actually constitutional amendments banning this type of activity. Our charter should follow the state precedent and disallow this kind of preferential district map drawing.

The fifth problem is that City Council district maps are not in effect per election as they are at the state level, they are in effect immediately upon adoption by City Council. City district boundaries serve no purpose except for electing City Council members, so there is no reason for them to have to be put into effect immediately instead of per election.

Throw all of these problems together, and you have the situation we have now. Two candidates for City Council in district 4 filed to run before the district maps were finalized. The residency requirements meant they would have to change residence by the day that the new district maps were approved by council to stay fully compliant with the city’s charter to run for office in that district. The opposite situation has happened in District 2, a candidate who has lived in the same house for 12 years was recently redistricted from district 3 to district 2. When this person filed to run for District 2, the residency requirement again became a cause for concern.

Is this situation entirely the fault of how the city’s charter is written? No. If the city administration had requested that City Council start the Redistricting Commission seven months earlier, this might not have happened. Or, if the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections had not consolidated so many precincts forcing larger changes in district boundaries, this might not have happened. But consider this, if the city’s charter had this one sentence added to it, making it similar to how things work at the state level, then there is no way this situation would have happened,

“If new City Council district maps are adopted by City Council less than 12 months before the next City Council primary election, then the district residency requirement to run for City Council will be removed for those primary and general elections, and the City Council candidates only need to be residents of the city as a whole for the last 12 months.”

Here is the only language relating to the residency requirement of a City Council candidate in the current city charter, 

“All applications shall be accompanied by an affidavit that the candidate is a qualified elector of the City of St. Petersburg, Florida, and that, as of the date of the primary election, a candidate for Council Member shall have been a resident of the declared district for at least the past twelve (12) months”

This reads like if a candidate files to run for City Council, they have to swear that they “have been” a resident of the district for 12 months counting backward from a date several months in the future from when they filed. This is impossible to swear to, especially in a redistricting year where the candidates might have to swear to something in the future that they have no control over, the redistricting process.

Another strange effect of how the charter is written allows a City Council candidate to move out of their district after the primary election, and they can stay in a residence in another district or even another city for over five months, even through the general election. They don’t have to move back to their elected district until the day they take office on January 2nd of the next year.

I am not alone in my opinion that the redistricting section of the city charter needs to be amended. During their final meeting, the Redistricting Commission took less than 30 minutes to choose the final district map that they approved. Then they spent double that amount of time going over what needed to be changed in the charter to make the redistricting process go more smoothly and be a more fair process. Along with their final map choice, the commission sent these suggestions to the City Council, and the City Council voted to hold a workshop to go over these suggestions within 30 days. That was on March 7, 2013 over 100 days ago, and to date no workshop has been scheduled. To be fair, at this point it is too late to fix these problems for this election cycle, since charter changes have to be approved by voters. But, procrastination is part of what caused the problems we are dealing with now, so it would be best if these issues can be dealt with soon while they are still fresh in everybody’s minds.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.