Brent Batten: Collier's conscience clear on redistricting process

BRENT BATTEN

In addition to being a veteran pollster and a behind-the-scenes force in national Democratic Party politics, Chuck Mohlke is Collier County’s unofficial conscience on matters political.

A decade ago it was Mohlke, in cooperation with then Republican Party leader Mike Carr, who successfully lobbied to keep coastal Collier County in a congressional district based on Florida’s West Coast. Prior to their concerted effort, a plan that would have split Collier up among districts based on the East Coast was gaining traction in Tallahassee.

In 2003, when ambiguous charter amendment language threatened to handcuff improvements at low income housing complexes in Naples, it was Mohlke who pointed it out.

He’s been at that sort of thing here for more than 30 years.

So the debate over Collier County’s new boundaries for county commission and school board districts is nothing new to him.

Contrary to critics, Mohlke sees nothing untoward or reckless about the process that at this stage has produced five alternatives for where district lines might be drawn to equalize population and fairly represent Collier’s residents.

Over the past few days, County Commissioner Georgia Hiller has questioned the timing of public hearings on the redistricting, the adequacy of the advance notice and record keeping and the motivation of the staff members who have drawn the alternative boundaries. It is typical of Hiller’s first months in office: Throw a bunch of frosted fudge brownies against the wall and see if some stick.

Additionally, John Lundin, a liberal activist best known for his opposition to the county’s courtship of Jackson Lab, asserts that all five of the current proposals violate the federal Voting Rights Act because they don’t go far enough in creating a heavily Hispanic district.

Mohlke, a member of the Democratic National Committee in a county with no elected Democrats in office, has little to gain politically by coming to the defense of the current board and its staff.

But he is also eminently fair-minded. “I think the public meetings, which are the best barometers for reading whether there is public awareness, public concern, have gone fairly well,” said Mohlke, in contrast to Hiller who says attendance amounting to a few dozen people means the staff has done a poor job of putting out advance notice.

In an e-mail to Lundin, Hiller wrote, “The meetings are being held at a time when few people are in town. They are being noticed ineffectively. At the District 2 public meeting, my understanding was that there were only about 20 or so residents that attended. This does not reflect a lack of voter interest. This reflects ineffective notice and inconsiderate timing.”

But there isn’t much wiggle room in the timing of the hearings.

Census figures upon which the new districts will be based weren’t ready until March. The entire process needs to be wrapped up well before the end of the year so the U.S. Justice Department can review it and voter registration cards and absentee ballots can be sent out prior to the presidential preference primary, which could be as early as Jan. 3.

Dave Carpenter, qualifying officer for the Supervisor of Elections, said the goal is to have voters use the same polling site for the presidential primary, the August, 2012 state primary and the general election in November. “We don’t want them to have to change horses in mid stream,” he said.

Adds Mohlke, “It’s always been done this time of year. That’s been the redistricting process forever around here. They have moved along in a very timely fashion since they got the (Census) information in mid-March.”

As for public notice, David Weeks, the Collier County planning manager leading the redistricting process, lists newspaper ads in Naples and Immokalee, a link on the county’s web site, speaking engagements before the East Naples Civic Association, the Golden Gate Area Civic Association and the NAACP as well as mass e-mails and front page news stories as among the efforts to get the word out.

Ten years ago, no more than 12 people showed up at any one public hearing on redistricting, so the 20 or 30 showing up for each one now is an improvement, Weeks said.

People who want to weigh in on the matter can, whether they attend a meeting or not, Mohlke noted. “In this electronic age, anybody can contribute their thoughts electronically.”

As for Hiller’s concern that the public meetings other than the one held in the county commission chambers aren’t being recorded, Weeks said the logistics of getting cameras and sound equipment set up at remote sites played a minor role in the decision. But the main factor, he said, was, “We just didn’t think it was necessary, as bad as that might sound. No decisions are being made. Staff is taking notes,” he said, adding the 2001 public hearing process wasn’t recorded.

Hiller and Lundin share a concern over the makeup of the various districts, particularly District 5 which presently includes Immokalee, Everglades City and eastern Collier County. Lundin, who is circulating a mock campaign poster for the District 5 commission race depicting himself as Robin Hood with the slogan, “Rob from the rich Naples, give to the poor Immokalee,” used the Census data to propose his own districts. In his scenario, District 5 would go from its present makeup of 45 percent Hispanic to 60 percent. Failing to do so will amount to a violation of the Voting Rights Act, he insists.

But Mohlke, who understands the Census and the Voting Rights Act better than anyone whose e-mail address doesn’t end in .gov, says that’s not so.

Satisfying the Justice Department takes more than just cramming as many minority voters as you can in one district. You can’t draw lines that take an incumbent out of his or her district. You have to try to keep districts compact and to keep communities of interest together. Lundin’s plan has District 5 extending west to Santa Barbara Boulevard, taking in Golden Gate city, raising the question, does urban Golden Gate share interests with rural Immokalee?

All five of the proposals put forward by staff increase the Hispanic population of District 5. One, known as Map 5, puts the district’s Hispanic population over 50 percent, a first in Collier County.

Says Mohlke, “It clearly exceeds the normal standard indicating there has been a serious attempt to afford the Hispanic community a chance to elect a representative of its choice.”

One map takes Pelican Bay, where Hiller draws much of her support, out of her District 2 and puts with the City of Naples in Commissioner Fred Coyle’s District 4.

Hiller has stoked speculation that the move is political retribution against her. “Just for your information, David Weeks’ statement that Map 2 ... was offered because Pelican Bay wanted to annex into the city of Naples is total bunk,” she wrote to Lundin.

Weeks counters that Pelican Bay and Naples have common issues such as beach renourishment, a seasonal population and similar demographics that make them compatible.

The map putting them together is no more political than the one that puts Marco Island and Naples in the same district, Weeks said. “There is a logic to saying it’s reasonable for those communities (Pelican Bay or Marco Island) to be in with the city,” he said.

Mohlke understands whatever lines are set will be in place for 10 years. He’ll be the first to stand up if some segment of the community is being given short shrift.

He sums up the process so far: “They’ve been very imaginative in finding ways to accommodate the school board members and the county commission person so their incumbency is respected. They have observed all the protocols the Justice Department is concerned about. They’re doing a very credible job, in my view.”

Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten

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