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Joe Flescher to seek re-election, and opponent worries about redistricting

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of August 19, 2021)
Photo: County Commission Chairman Joe Flescher

The Florida Constitution requires the state’s 67 county commissions to set new district boundaries every 10 years, after they receive the latest population numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.

But a candidate who filed last month to run against County Commission Chairman Joe Flescher for his District 2 seat in 2022 said the four-term incumbent should recuse himself from any vote on a redistricting plan that eliminates her as his opponent.

“He shouldn’t participate in the commission’s vote to approve a plan that redistricts his competition out of the race,” Gifford resident Elizabeth Siebert said. “There’s not only the appearance of impropriety, but he has an obvious conflict of interest.

“If my district changes, it leaves me dead in the water,” she said.

Siebert is concerned that, because of the county’s growth over the past decade, the district lines could shift in a way that moves her home to a district in which the commission seat is not up for election next year. Only the seats held by Flescher and Vice Chairman Peter O’Bryan will be on the 2022 ballot.

Flescher shrugged off Siebert’s contention, saying he will fulfill his constitutional duty and join the other county commissioners in voting on a new redistricting plan, which will be in effect for the 2022 election.

“I can see her concern, but there’s no gerrymandering,” Flescher said. “All five county commissioners will vote on a plan recommended by staff, using the data we get from the federal government and based on the Florida statute, which requires that we have five districts equal in population and, where possible, squared off by natural and man-made boundaries.”

Flescher said he plans to seek re-election, but he hasn’t yet filed to run. Currently, Flescher’s district includes Orchid and the unincorporated North Barrier Island north of the Wabasso Causeway, Grand Harbor, Gifford south to 41st Street and parts of northwest Sebastian.

As for Siebert’s allegation that approving a redistricting plan that eliminates her from the race presents him with a conflict of interest, Flescher said the commission’s final vote will be conducted before the end of the year, allowing several months for other candidates to challenge him.

County Attorney Dylan Reingold, who is overseeing the redistricting process, said he isn’t aware of “any conflict of interest” in connection with commissioners voting on district boundaries.

Leslie Swan, the county’s supervisor of elections, said she couldn’t predict where the new lines will be drawn, but candidates whose residences are moved into a different district have two options: “They can either move or wait for the next election in their new district.” Swan said there were no similar complaints during the redistricting process 10 years ago when the Town of Indian River Shores was moved from Flescher’s district to then-commissioner Bob Solari’s district, which includes the City of Vero Beach and the South Barrier Island.

The only other county commission candidate to file thus far is Joann Binford, who is running for the District 4 seat held by O’Bryan.

Reingold began preparing for the redistricting process last month, but the county staff can’t begin studying the data until it receives the final numbers from the Census Bureau on Sept. 30 – five months later than usual.

The county staff, which received preliminary data from the Census Bureau last week, will seek input from Swan’s office, the county’s municipalities and the public during the redistricting process, Reingold said. Ultimately, he said, the commissioners will be presented with two or three plans.

In a memo to the commissioners, Reingold wrote that – to the extent possible – the five districts shall be nearly equal in population, compact rather than sprawling and contiguous.

The newly drawn lines should preserve the geographical core of the existing districts, including neighborhoods and other communities of interest, and follow natural or man-made boundaries, such as major roadways, rivers, bridges and canals.

“No district shall be drawn to split or minimize the political influence of any group of residents,” Reingold wrote, and an incumbent commissioner may not be redistricted out of his or her current district.

The public got its first chance to provide input on the redistricting process at the County Commission meeting earlier this week, when the commissioners were expected to approve the criteria upon which the new lines will be drawn.

Then, the county staff was scheduled to begin work on conceptual district maps, which will be presented to the public on Oct. 19, when the commission will provide instructions for the development of a final proposed map.

A third public hearing to discuss and approve a final proposed district map is scheduled for Dec. 7, though dates might change because of the delay in getting the Census Bureau data.