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Commissioners reject proposal to put all of 32963 in same district

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of October 28, 2021)

County commissioners last week rejected a redistricting proposal that would have put the entire barrier island in the same district, opting instead to move forward with a plan that most resembles the existing map.

The commissioners, who are scheduled to approve a new district map at their Dec. 7 meeting, voted 4-1 to send the plan they favored – Proposed Plan 1 – back to the county staff with instructions to “tweak” the boundaries.

The instructions included not splitting up municipalities among more than two districts, reducing the disparity in district populations, keeping Vero Beach’s McAnsh Park neighborhood intact in one district, and squaring off the northeast corner of District 3.

The commissioners said they will review the revised map at their Nov. 2 meeting.

“I don’t believe we can satisfy everybody,” Commission Chairman Joe Flescher said, “but we’re here to serve the masses.”

State law requires counties to redraw district boundaries every 10 years based on population shifts identified by Census data. The county’s redistricting criteria requires districts to be compact, contiguous and nearly equal in population – within a 3 percent deviation – with lines drawn along natural and man-made boundaries, such as major roads, rivers and canals.

Paige Lester, the county’s Geographical Information System analyst, presented the commission with three proposed maps, including one that would have put the entire barrier island into District 5.  Laura Moss currently holds the District 5 commission seat.

The island currently is split between District 2, where Flescher holds the seat, and District 5, with the Wabasso Causeway (State Road 510) as the dividing line.

Under Proposed Plan 3, as it was called, District 5 would have included all of the barrier island and a stretch of the mainland east of U.S. 1 from 45th Street to the St. Lucie County line.

Not only did that plan offer the least disparity in population among the county’s five districts, but it also drew the greatest support from a parade of Black speakers who attended the public hearing to voice their concerns about the Gifford community’s lack of representation in local government.

The county, which was incorporated in 1925, has never had a Black commissioner or constitutional officer.

“We would like to be heard,” Gifford resident Myra Ferguson told the commissioners. “We do not like the idea of feeling like we are invisible. We would like to be at that table when decisions are made.”

Other Black speakers, including Indian River County NAACP chapter president Tony Brown, cited the considerable wealth disparity between their communities and the affluent residents of Orchid, Windsor and other areas of the island’s northern tier.

Brown said the “underserved, impoverished communities” of Gifford, Wabasso, Oslo and Fellsmere, want the commission to understand and respond to their needs and concerns, adding that lacking such representation in local government is “problematic.”

The commissioners listened intently to Brown, Ferguson and other Black speakers who went to the podium, but when the public-hearing segment was concluded, they quickly dismissed Proposed Plan 3.

Moss said putting the entire island in one district “seems logical,” but she worried that the plan was “flirting with bringing back segregation” – at least on a socio-economic level.

Commissioner Susan Adams, who represents District 1, said residents of the island’s northern tier have different issues and concerns than their neighbors to the south, despite their socio-economic similarities.

The island’s population isn’t large enough to fill an entire district.

According to the recently released Census numbers, the county’s population grew from 138,028 in 2010 to 159,788 in 2020. Dividing that total into five equal parts, each of the newly drawn districts should have a population of 31,958, or be within 3 percent of that figure.

The island’s population is 16,291, which required Lester to include a sizable stretch of mainland to construct Proposed Plan 3, which deviated the most from the existing map.

The county, however, is not district sensitive, meaning that while commissioners must live in their districts, they are elected by and serve voters countywide.

Thus, districts are relevant only in terms of ensuring that the entire county is represented – by preventing a majority of commissioners being residents of one municipality or section of the county.

By choosing to focus on Proposed Plan 1, the commissioners are embracing a map that creates the largest disparity in population among the five districts.

“We have some wiggle room,” Commission Vice Chairman Peter O’Bryan said, “as long as we stay under the 3 percent threshold.”

District lines needed to be redrawn because the disparity in populations under the existing boundaries after the 2020 Census was too large in District 2 and too small in Districts 3 and 5.

Under Proposed Plan 1, the greatest disparities in population would be in District 2 (32,810) and District 3 (31,065). The population in District 5 (32,160) would be the closest to the average ideal figure of 31,958.