Drawing lines: Redistricting panel gets to work on county commission, school board boundaries

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

FREEPORT —  Ten Walton County residents began work Wednesday on a math problem whose eventual answer will have 10 years of consequences.

Those residents, appointed by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners and the Walton County Board of Education, are charged with reconfiguring the county commission and School Board electoral district boundaries to bring them in line with the latest federal census figures, released this year after the 2020 national population count.

Electoral district lines for the County Commission and the School Board, which were made contiguous during the last county redistricting following the 2010 census, must be redrawn to ensure that residents are equally represented in front of the commission and the School Board.

As they began their work Wednesday, redistricting committee members got a broad look at the issues before them, starting with the fact that the county's population has increased from 55,043 people in 2010 to 75,305 people in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — an increase of 20,262.

In this Aug. 11, 2020, file photo, a census taker knocks on the door of a residence in Winter Park, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

From 2020: Walton self-response to census among lowest in state

Growing pains:Walton County residents fear development is changing the community for the worse

(Even though redistricting is aimed at ensuring equal representation, it is based on the county's total population, not the voting-age population or the number of registered voters in a given area.)

And of course, the more than 20,000 people who came to Walton County over the past 10 years are not evenly distributed, thereby necessitating the redrawing of electoral districts to rebalance representation in front of the School Board and County Commission.

With a 2020 population of 75,305, the ideal mathematical balance among the five districts would be 15,061 people, which is an informal target for redistricting but not an absolute requirement, as long as the new districts are reasonably balanced.

However, as an example of the still-daunting nature of the work facing the Redistricting Committee, none of the county's five electoral districts is close to that number, according to data presented to the committee by the county's Geographic Information Systems (GIS) office.

The differences are most striking in District 1, in the southeastern corner of the county above the beach, and in District 2, which runs roughly northward and eastward from DeFuniak Spring to the county line.

In District 1, the 2020 population number is 19,000, which is 3,939 people above the optimal district population. In District 2, the 2020 population is 11,673, which is 3,388 people below the optimal district population.

District 3, in the northwestern part of the county, is 2,483 people below the optimal population, while District 4, which covers southwestern Walton County, is 1,521 people below the 15,061-person distribution. And District 5, along the county's beaches, is 3,504 people above that ideal distribution.

Numbers, however, aren't the only concern for the committee. Also to be taken into consideration, at their discretion, is whether or not School Board members or commissioners, particularly those who may live near a district boundary, could or should be "drawn out" of their district with the shifting of district lines.

Additionally, the committee will have to consider the potential for new district lines to be confusing for voters.

At their initial meeting Wednesday, committee — which chose as its chairman self-confessed "maps nerd" Robert Nelson, who served on previous redistricting efforts in 2005 and 2011 — heard from Supervisor of Election Bobby Beasley, who urged them to keep things simple.

A redistricting committee appointed by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners and the Walton County Board of Education has begun its work of redrawing local electoral district lines.

Noting that he certainly recognizes the need to redraw district lines, Beasley asked the committee to "be kind to your supervisor" and added that "the less radically we move the lines, the fewer complaints we're going to get from people."

But Barbara Morano, an activist in the south county and frequent presence at local government meetings, urged the Redistricting Committee to not necessarily be guided by convenience.

Suggesting that "the chips are going to fall where they may," Morano told committee members that "maybe you will have to make some bold statements, maybe you will have to make some changes, particularly with South Walton."

Morano said the committee should not be concerned about implications of any redistricting plan for a sitting elected official.

"You cannot be influenced by a commissioner who may lose part of his district," said Morano, who urged members to "be fair, be true to yourself, and I know you'll make the right decision."

Background:New rules for Zoom: Walton County starts stricter process for remote public participation

The committee, whose meetings are open to the public, and also available for some participation via the Zoom teleconferencing tool and for viewing on the county government website, plans to wrap up its work in November in advance of the 2022 election season.

The committee will meet at 4 p.m. every other Thursday, with the next meeting scheduled for Sept. 16 at the county's Freeport board room at 122 State Road E.

In addition to whatever potential redistricting maps the committee may develop, the panel decided informally Wednesday to allow members of the public to submit their own maps for consideration.

Kevin Laird, the county's GIS data coordinator, told the members that he would be available for people considering preparing their own maps.