An “unprecedented” part of “the most open, transparent, interactive” redistricting process ever, or a “sham” designed by Florida lawmakers to placate the public while they work to draw new district lines to benefit themselves? That’s the question dogging the set of 26 public redistricting hearings scheduled by the state Legislature to kick off next week.

As the Florida Legislature gears up to redraw state House, state Senate and congressional districts before next year’s elections, it has booked a series of public meetings around the state, the goal of which is to solicit citizen input on the redistricting process. According to the Legislature’s online RSVP form, the “sole purpose” of the hearings that start Mon., June 20, “is listening to learn how you want the standards governing redistricting to be implemented and how you think districts in your area can work best for all voters and constituents.”

“People who actually live and work in communities and neighborhoods have a lot to tell us about the natural boundaries that are created by culture and business and commerce and school zones,” says state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Destin, chair of the Florida Senate’s reapportionment committee. “We want to hear from people who live in communities and neighborhoods.”

Gaetz says the hearings are part of what he promises will be “the most open, transparent, interactive process of public engagement” around redistricting “anywhere in America.” His pledge echoes the words of Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, who guaranteed “the most open, transparent reapportionment process ever” back in January.

“He is really not blowing smoke,” says Alexis Lambert, a lawyer working with the Senate reapportionment committee. “There is really an incredibly diligent effort going into these public hearings. There has been tremendous outreach.”

As evidence that lawmakers intend to follow through on their transparency pledge, Lambert cites the fact that all the census data legislators will use to draw districts next year is available online, and that the Legislature has made the software it will be using available to the public. The Florida House created the website Florida Redistricting as a hub for reapportionment information.

Not everyone is buying the rhetoric.

“About every legislature I’ve ever encountered has claimed that their process is going to be the most transparent ever, and they never are,” says J. Gerald Hebert, executive director and director of litigation at The Campaign Legal Center, a D.C.-based nonpartisan, nonprofit political analysis group. Hebert is currently helping defend the two “Fair Districts” amendments approved by Florida voters last fall against a lawsuit filed by U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, and Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.

Hebert calls the Legislature’s public hearings a “sham.” “There’s nothing that the Legislature is putting forward,” he points out, saying the public’s suggestions will become nothing but a “wish list” that lawmakers will ignore. “At the end of the day, they’re going to draw the districts how they want,” Hebert says.

In an interview with Florida Capital News, former state Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, who is helping the organization that created “Fair Districts” oversee implementation of the amendments, echoed that view, calling the hearings “window dressing.”

Florida law may help keep the public in the dark, too. A state statute specifically exempts redistricting documents from becoming public records until the final plan is proposed. “A draft, and a request for a draft, of a reapportionment plan or redistricting plan” are exempted, as well as “any supporting documents associated with such plan or amendment until a bill implementing the plan, or the amendment, is filed.”

“It is problematic for the process, and it’s not often done that way, and when it is done that way it’s done to shield the legislature’s decision-making from the public,” Hebert says. The new “Fair Districts” amendments stipulate that lines not be drawn with the intent of favoring or disfavoring a particular party or candidate; Hebert says the records exempted by Florida law are the only way the public can decide whether the Legislature is living up to that standard.

Sen. Gaetz’s son, state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, introduced a bill during this past legislative session that would have eliminated the exemption for redistricting-related documents. It went nowhere.

“We intend to follow Florida’s open-government-in-sunshine law to a T,” says Sen. Gaetz, when asked whether his committee might make available some of its “supporting documents” before the final plans are introduced. Lambert says the committee will turn over information — an example she cites is the source code for the redistricting software — once the maps are completed.

Hebert says citizens can at least use the public hearings to speak out against Florida’s current map, which he calls “an egregious Republican gerrymander.” But he doesn’t think that will carry much weight when lawmakers sit down to plot out district lines. ”They don’t get drawn in the public, and they’ll get drawn in the back room in Florida too,” he says.

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