No single factor determines “residency” according to joint legislative memo issued Friday

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Every ten years, new district lines are drawn for the Florida House and Senate. Sometimes, a legislator or candidate lives a few houses away from the district they would like to represent; sometimes they live many counties away. They rent a place to qualify to run, wage a campaign, and plan (or, as it turns out, “plan”) to move into the district upon being elected. Doesn’t always happen that way, as we’ve seen from a recent spate of legislators found residing outside where they are constitutionally required to live. Mostly, lately, this has seemed to be a South Florida Democrat thing. 

During the summer of 2013, Sen. Jack Latvala wanted answers. As Chair of the Ethics and Elections Committee, he raised concerns about members living outside the districts they represent. Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford directed their respective General Counsels to examine the judicial and administrative precedents of interpreting residency requirements in different contexts and to provide a set of criteria that could be considered to demonstrate compliance with residency requirements. 

On Jan. 8, 2014, legislators were provided this information in a detailed memo, and through a thorough review of its recommendations, House and Senate leadership agreed that an enforceable rule is necessary. To implement a joint rule, Senate Concurring Resolution 954 was drafted. 

(Sidebar: Is it a beautiful coincidence that “954” is the area code for Broward County, where most of the residency mishaps have occurred? Hmm.) 

This rule will be brought before the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday by Sen. John Thrasher. In sum, it provides a set of criteria that in totality can be used to validate a member’s claim of residency. For example: where one receives mail, is registered to vote, has a homestead exemption, and customarily resides. 

“I am very happy that the President and Speaker have responded to my concerns and taken this very significant first step to assuring that people in districts throughout Florida will in fact be represented by those who actually live among them,” said Latvala.

These terms were developed through various interpretations of what it means to “reside” somewhere. In other words, just because a member sleeps 95 percent of the time away from where he claims to live, he may not be in true violation of the law. Just in contradiction to one clear interpretation of the law. 

Further, each member is to affirm in writing that he or she is a legal resident and elector of his or her district and must file the affirmation with their chamber before Organizational Session. In accordance with Florida’s Constitution, failure to maintain legal residence with one’s district is grounds for a vacancy in office — however, each house of the Legislature is the sole judge of the qualifications of its members. 

And, of course, a district’s voters are the sole judge of whether they feel the legislator deserves reelection. And knowledge that a member lives in a district only by way of technicality… well… that’s something that can be shared with voters loud and clear. 

Here is the original memo drafted by the General Counsels: 

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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.