Back to square one? Walton redistricting committee delays district map approval

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

FREEPORT — The committee appointed by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners and the Walton County Board of Education to draw new commission and School Board districts decided Thursday to extend its work through the middle of this month, and possibly longer, as members work to get the new maps to the commission and School Board for final action before the end of the year.

Redistricting committees are appointed every 10 years in conjunction with the nationwide census to redraw local political districts to balance their population to ensure equal representation of residents. In Walton County, the population has grown by more than 20,000 people, from 55,043 people in 2010 to 75,305 people in 2020, according to census data. 

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The Walton County Redistricting Committee had been scheduled to wrap up its work Thursday with a vote on a single redistricting map — one of nearly 30 maps considered by the group — to forward to the School Board and the County Commission. Instead, the committee voted 6-4 to meet again Nov. 18 to consider additional maps.

Those maps, which will be made available on the county website for public review, could include maps previously discarded by the committee and new maps submitted by the public.

Also, a part of the Nov. 18 review at 4 p.m. at the South Walton Courthouse Annex in Santa Rosa Beach will be the map that had been scheduled for a final vote and forwarded to commissioners and School Board members Thursday.

That map has found significant advocacy in the south county because it gives two of the five County Commission districts to the area south of the Choctawhatchee Bay, which has 40% of the county's population.

Commissioners serve the county in an at-large capacity, but must be residents of the district from which they are elected.

Among the people urging the committee to wrap up its work Thursday was Barbara Morano, who lives in the south end. 

"I'm flabbergasted that we're talking about this now," Morano said as the committee launched into a discussion of presenting more than one map to the commission and the School Board after setting up Thursday's meeting to vote on the single map.

"They trusted you to make a decision," said Morano, who noted that if either the commission or the School Board didn't like the map giving two commission members to the south county, they could reject it.

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Morano also noted that the map initially up for consideration Thursday was reflective of what she and other residents of the south county want.

"We asked for two districts south of the bay, and we got them," said Morano, who suggested that by doing anything other than forwarding that map to the commission and School Board, the committee would set the process "back to almost square one again."

"I think this should be moved on," she said.

There were also suggestions from Morano and others that, in moving off a perceived commitment to the map Thursday, the panel had succumbed to political pressure from somewhere.

Among the people warning about political influence was one of the committee's own members, local attorney Gary Shipman.

"This is not about the election next year," Shipman told his colleagues. "It's about what our political boundaries are going to be for the next 10 years."

And, he chided, "Everybody on this board voted on a map," referencing the map that was set for a final committee vote Thursday.

On the other side of the issue was Amanda Ray, a School Board appointee to the committee, who said that she had heard from a lot of people in the last week in connection with the map up for consideration, but hadn't had a chance to comment on it.

Her concern about those late comments was roundly criticized by people attending the session, who said that there had been ample opportunity for comment.

"You're getting cold feet at this point," one woman told Ray. "You are always going to have somebody calling you after the fact. ... (Y)ou just have to make a decision and move forward."

The redistricting committee can submit more than one map to the School Board and County Commission for their consideration, although interim county counsel Clay Adkinson, who is advising the committee, suggested Thursday that if they do so they should mark one map as a preferred choice.

Under the current timetable, absent any special called meeting, the County Commission will get its first official look at the committee's work at its Dec. 14 meeting. It was not clear Thursday exactly when the School Board will consider the panel's work.

In any event, The School Board and the County Commission must have their work done in time to get the local plan to the state for review by the end of this year.