St. Johns County officials to Florida legislators: Keep the county whole

SHELDON GARDNER | The Saint Augustine Record | 08/16/2015

As a new congressional districts map evolves in the Florida Legislature, local officials are concerned that St. Johns County’s district could be split and its congressional representation will weaken.

A proposed map drafted by House members as part of the special legislative session on redistricting would split St. Johns County into two districts, with a large part of the county being part of a district with Duval and Nassau counties. The southern of St. Johns County would be connected to Volusia, Flagler and other counties.

Officials say the change would likely weaken St. Johns County and could hurt funding. The issue has drawn representatives and local bodies to send letters in support of keeping St. Johns County whole.

County Commissioner Bill McClure testified before the House subcommittee on redistricting this week. He also carried with him letters including from the County Commission, and the local Republican and Democratic party organizations.

“The message is that we need a unified voice in Congress,” McClure said.

McClure also provided an alternative map, which he said he has updates for, that would keep St. Johns County intact that is now on the Floridaredistricting.org website in a section for publicly submitted maps. He said he needs a sponsor for the map, which lumps St. Johns, Clay and Putnam counties into a single district, for it to be considered.

The special session came after a Florida Supreme Court ruling that upheld the finding of the unconstitutionality of the previous process for drawing the districts because of intent to favor a political party and incumbents — a reason the constitution prohibits.

Despite some opposition, the Florida House has moved forward with the proposed map, according to the Associated Press. Among other changes, the map would change districts in central Florida, Tallahassee and the Tampa Bay area. And representatives from areas other than St. Johns County have asked for changes.

The House Select Committee on Redistricting voted 9-4 this week in favor of the map, according to the Associated Press.

Amendments were offered but not included.

The next step is for the map to go the full house next week. Change is still possible before the map goes to the Senate. The entire process has to be wrapped up this month so a judge can review whatever map the Legislature approves.

Some local representatives have asked for changes and voiced concern. Some have also said having the county split may not be a negative depending on the representative.

State Sen. Travis Hutson is among those in opposition to the proposed map, and he wrote a letter for the Joint Committee on Redistricting:

“By dividing St. Johns County’s population centers, Congressional District 6 becomes a Central Florida seat, and Northeast Florida loses a congressional delegate, a reduction from four to three delegates, effectively undermining the rapidly growing region’s ability to bargain at the federal level,” according to Hutson.

Hutson also said on Friday, if the map is approved, “I think it’s going to be tougher for us to fight to say why we’re important at the local level.”

State Rep. Cyndi Stevenson said concerns about splitting the county include having less clout with Congress.

“We’re a growing county. We have historic St. Augustine. We have 42 miles of coast. We have disproportionate needs. We need somebody to pay attention to us ... So I think that’s why it’s worth trying to get us all in one place, whether we get there this time or not,” she said. “By making our case, maybe it will be remembered when we get to draw the maps again.”

The St. Johns County Commission also sent a letter, signed by Commission Chair Rachael Bennett, to both the Senate and House committees asking for St. Johns County to be split into not more than two districts if a split has to be made.

Leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties in St. Johns County are also concerned about the plan.

Nell Toensmann, chair of St. Johns County Democratic Party, said she thinks many in the party are in favor of keeping the county as one district. While she indicated redistricting could bring about positive change for the party, she also voiced concerns.

“What we risk is really no representation of St. Johns County or somebody who does not understand what the county is about and some of the unique problems we have,” she said.

She and others mentioned U.S. Rep. John Mica’s former representation of St. Johns County and the funding he helped bring to the county. St. Johns County is now represented by U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, whose run for the U.S. Senate means the district seat will be open next fall.

Bill Korach, chair of St. Johns County’s Republican Party, said the party met recently along with a couple of representatives to talk about the issue.

The party feels the map would cut the voice of St. Johns County, he said.

“In Congress, we’ll lose half of a district ... I want St. Johns County to remain the district that it’s always been,” he said.


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