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Senate's Motives At Issue As Redistricting Trial Starts

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TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – The decisions prompting state Senate leaders to choose a redistricting plan they recommended to a Leon County judge took center stage Monday, the first day of a trial to determine whether that map should go to the Florida Supreme Court.

Circuit Judge George Reynolds has the task of recommending to the Supreme Court either the Senate's redistricting proposal or one of several plans offered by a coalition of voting-rights groups including the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida. The job fell to Reynolds after the House and Senate failed to come to an agreement on a map during a special session that ended in November.

Existing Senate districts are being set aside under a settlement between lawmakers and the voting-rights organizations, which sued to overturn the current map, arguing it violated a voter-approved ban on political gerrymandering.

David King, a lawyer for the groups, tried to highlight the thought process of Senate Reapportionment Chairman Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who spearheaded the redistricting plans in the Senate. Galvano, for example, chose which of six "base maps" proposed by legislative staff to become the basis for the Senate's proposal.

"The question keeps coming back, what is it that compelled ... Sen. Galvano to move forward on this particular map?" King said. "The answer is that it was the one that performed best for Republicans both from a standpoint of political performance and from the standpoint of protecting incumbents."

King said the first map selected by Galvano was the one that avoided throwing Senate leaders together into the same district. And the plan that the Senate recommended to the court would produce no Republican incumbent-versus-incumbent match-ups. He also hinted that lawmakers would focus on why Galvano requested on Oct. 24 that staff members draw the map sent to Reynolds --- and then declined to offer it during the redistricting session.

"What happened to that map in the process? Nothing," King said. "They didn't use it. It never was published. It was never filed."

King also grilled Jay Ferrin, the staff director for Galvano's committee, on why the base map that Galvano selected was the best one. The lawyer pointed to measurements that indicated that, among the six base maps staff members produced, the one Galvano selected was not the most compact. Compactness is one requirement of the anti-gerrymandering "Fair Districts" standards approved in 2010.

"I think (the chosen map) was somewhere in the middle on just about everything," Ferrin replied.

"Why would you choose one that was somewhere in the middle?" King asked.

Ferrin responded that the map Galvano selected appeared to respond best to some of the complaints King's clients had raised in litigation against the existing Senate plan.

King also pointed out that the proposal Galvano used had one of the worst counts when it came to the number of cities and counties that were split. Fair Districts requires lawmakers to use existing city and county boundaries when they can.

"It wasn't the lowest," Ferrin said.

"It's not the lowest is not a very good recommendation when you've got six maps there, is it?" King asked.

After a pause, Ferrin answered: "No."

But staff members who testified Monday also tried to downplay the idea that one map could be clearly determined to be more or less in keeping with the constitutional requirements that voters approved in 2010.

"I don't think that there is ever a map that should be held up as the most compliant," said Jason Poreda, a House aide who has been heavily involved in redistricting. "You either are or you are not compliant with the Constitution."

The court also heard a recording of a call that Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, made to Ferrin when Simmons was considering offering an amendment to the map. In the call, the senator asked Ferrin to make changes that were "aesthetic" and would unpair two female senators.

Simmons appears to be referring to Sens. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, and Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.

"I do not want two of our female senators running against each other, because I don't think it's appropriate. ... And I don't consider that acceptable," Simmons said.

Ferrin reported the incident to Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and the Senate's top lawyer. The amendment Simmons asked for was never heard.

The News Service Of Florida's Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.

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