Multiple District Disorder

Divide North Miami and you also divide a burgeoning Haitian-American voting bloc. Was that the plan?

On November 27 the North Miami City Council, after twenty minutes of discussion and public comment, unanimously passed a resolution challenging the newly drawn Miami-Dade County Commission district boundaries. The resolution, the first step in a process leading to a lawsuit against the county, charges the new district plan violates the constitutions of the United States and Florida and the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Knowledgeable observers can't recall a case in which a Florida municipality has gone so far as to take legal action to change county voting district lines, though in this year of mandatory postcensus redistricting, many plans across the nation are expected to attract legal challenges. The North Miami resolution is most interesting, however, for its unstated context: an increasingly well-organized campaign for Haitian-American political recognition, a campaign largely headquartered in North Miami.

Every ten years, in the wake of the national census, voting-district boundaries are redrawn to reflect demographic changes within cities, counties, and state and federal legislative districts. The thirteen-member Miami-Dade County Commission unanimously adopted a new district map on November 15. And as is always the case with redistricting, the commissioners' top priority as they reworked the map was the protection of each member's turf -- the constituency that elected each one in the first place.

Ossmann Desir finds many votes swept away by the new commission district map
Steve Satterwhite
Ossmann Desir finds many votes swept away by the new commission district map

But the new district lines, which take effect January 1, don't look so advantageous to the leaders of North Miami, population 60,000. The fourth-largest municipality in Miami-Dade has been split into four commission districts. Until now, two commissioners -- Dorrin Rolle and Gwen Margolis -- shared representation of the city; the new map divides the town among Rolle, Margolis, Barbara Carey-Schuler, and Betty Ferguson. (Miami and Hialeah also are split into multiple districts, but they're several times larger than North Miami.)

"[The commissioners] have taken a very cohesive and compact community such as ours," protests North Miami City Attorney John Dellagloria, "and have literally and figuratively drawn and quartered it. They've just killed us."

"There is the feeling the city's ability to influence county government will be adversely affected," adds attorney Norman Powell of the Miami law firm Bilzin Sumberg. Powell, a veteran of several high-profile voting-rights cases, has been retained by North Miami in the map matter. "We don't believe a commissioner who represents only a small finger of North Miami is going to be responsive to us. It might play out differently, but we don't want to take that chance."

On November 28 Powell sent the resolution by certified mail to commission chairwoman Gwen Margolis and to Mayor Alex Penelas. Under state law representatives of the county must meet with city representatives within 30 days of receiving the resolution. "The idea is to try to avoid having intergovernmental disputes play out in court," Powell explains. If the parties can't resolve their differences at the first meeting, the statute calls for subsequent public meetings, followed by the appointment of a mediator. If mediation fails, the city will take its complaint to either state or federal court, depending on legal strategy yet to be decided.

While Powell and others say it's too early to devise specific legal arguments, the gist of the opposition is that the new boundaries will divide a community with common interests and/or dilute minority voting strength, generally prohibited by state and federal laws. But it won't be easy to craft a winning argument. "There is no constitutional or statutory right to community recognition in the redistricting process," asserts Assistant County Attorney Randy Duvall. "Communities of interest is one of the many legitimate considerations the [commission] can look at, but this is a political process."

Local politicians and strategists interviewed for this story all agree the quartering of North Miami has pros and cons, though most see more cons. Former North Miami Mayor Frank Wolland was happy dealing with two commissioners. "On many occasions I reached out to both people," Wolland recalls. "It was helpful having two individuals who represent the city on the county commission. But to be told we're to be represented by four different county commissioners -- it definitely has the effect of diluting any power to act as a whole."

Neisen Kasdin, mayor of Miami Beach until last month, says the two commissioners representing his city of 90,000 also "were very responsive to the needs of the Beach. On the other hand," Kasdin believes, "for a smaller city to be divided into four districts, the relative importance of that city to the rest of the county is greatly diminished. It may dilute the voice of that city so much no county commissioner would necessarily have a sense of ownership of the city's issues."

"It can play to your advantage if you have four commissioners who are not caught up in local things but able to advocate for the city," theorizes a political consultant who has a North Miami client and didn't want to be named. "From a power point of view, I would say having four votes on the commission is a good thing."

Consultant Armando Gutierrez hasn't seen the exact new boundaries, but "depending on who's drawing them up, it might be good, because you don't have to deal with one person. If one [commissioner] gets mad at you, you have three others. It all depends on how they're breaking it up."

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