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Equal representation through redistricting process requested by Black Lee County citizens

Democracy Watch

Citizens are asking Lee County Commissioners for equal representation for everyone in this year’s redistricting process.

Two advocates leading the charge are Lee County Democratic Black Caucus (LCDBC) president Carolyn Norris and former LCDBC president Gerri Ware. These meetings are the first time all 39 members of the LCDBC have come together as a group.

The dilution 2011 redistricting which fractured the Dunbar community is one of the main problems citizens hope to change in 2021’s redistricting. Ware, who is now a supervisor with the LCDBC, has been a resident of Dunbar for over 40 years. She said she was astonished by the results of 2011’s redistricting and felt the county ignored citizens.

“What happened with the 2011 redistricting period is it splintered the community from its prior spot in District 2. The other portion was absorbed into District 4. This portion is North Fort Myers and across the Caloosahatchee River,” Norris said. “It appears to be non-contiguous and that grouping seems to have not grouped like-minded citizens with the same interests and needs.”

Florida state law requires each county to meet every 10 years for redistricting after the U.S. Census.

“It’s like they have us on the menu, but we’re not at the table,” Ware said. “You (the commissioners) talk about me (citizens), but you don’t let me be a part of what you’re talking about.”

Dunbar is one of the largest and oldest Black communities in Lee County. Its current district boundaries have made it especially difficult for minority candidates to get elected to local office.

“One of the goals of the county by drawing these lines is to be sure that they are equal and fair to people of all communities,” Norris said. “This issue was on the table, but it got swept away. We don’t want to be dismissed because we’re just being citizens. We should have an open and transparent process.”

According to Lee County Commissioners, the goal of redistricting is to assess or adjust each district’s population so that no single district has substantially more residents in it.

This boundary drawing of Lee County’s five districts is distinct from lines drawn for school assignments. These district boundaries are adjusted to account for population growth among the commission districts.

Following the public hearings, the commission will gather information and submit it to the state legislature for the final decision on redistricting.

An option suggested at public meetings was the inclusion of a citizen’s advisory committee. The committee would be at the table, and more involved as decisions are made, instead of going through commissioner assistants at public hearings.

“We want a more engaged role and understanding of why they would draw the lines in a particular manner, and what are the better options,” Norris said. “We want to see how you are going to draw the lines such that you’re grouping like-minded people.”

Although District 4 Commissioner Brian Hamman said there is currently no plan to implement a citizen’s advisory committee, the board wants to make sure these concerns are heard and considered in the redistricting process.

“Anything that people want to do, I try to make myself very accessible, so you’re not limited to speaking to an unelected citizen’s advisory committee if you want to weigh in on redistricting,” Hamman said. “You have access directly to the elected commissioner official.”

Hamman said citizens have a right to speak more at regular board meetings as well.

“Redistricting certainly brings out the political camps from both sides and they’re all going to make their different arguments,” Hamman said. “As we start to look at the maps, we want to make sure they follow the spirit of the law and that they are legal and fair to people.”

Ware, however, feels this year’s results will be a replay of the public issues created by the 2011 redistricting process.

“I don’t think it’s going to be any different because, as Carolyn has said, we have gone down and asked them to have a diverse advisory committee from the community,” Ware said. “They don’t want that; they want to tell us what they want us to have. This is what you’re going to get as opposed to getting input from us.”

Citizens can still speak at the Old Lee County Courthouse during the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) regular board meetings. The board meetings are held at 9:30 a.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of the month.

The public will also have at least four opportunities at public redistricting hearings to comment. These public hearings are scheduled to take place on Oct. 5, Nov. 2, Nov. 16, and Dec. 7.

This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service of Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. The reporter can be reached at thwatkins18@gmail.com.