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Multiple District Disorder

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

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.

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."

Regardless of how North Miami's influence might be affected, the parceling of the town can't be separated from the political aspirations of the Haitian-American voting bloc. For the last several years, community groups have been working to secure official designation of Haitians as a separate ethnic group. (Currently, on the short U.S. Census forms and county voter-registration documents, Haitians are lumped in with every other group of African origin, under "black.") Part of this campaign for recognition has involved efforts to persuade redistricting committees, either for state legislative districts or Miami-Dade County Commission districts, to create a Haitian-majority voting district. The idea never gained much support, partly because the true number of Haitians living in Miami-Dade isn't known with certainty; best estimates place the population at 115,000. Nevertheless state house District 104, represented since last year by Haitian-American lawyer Phillip Brutus, is widely regarded as a Haitian district.

In May 2000 North Miami became the first major municipality in the nation with a Haitian mayor and a Haitian majority on the city council. Thus the current redistricting plan for North Miami is seen by Haitians throughout Miami-Dade as disenfranchisement. North Miami Councilman Ossmann Desir, who next year will become the first Haitian American to seek a county commission seat, has seen much of the District 2 Haitian constituency he was counting on disappear into other districts. (Interestingly it was the redistricting plan sponsored by Desir's political rival, Dorrin Rolle, that was finally adopted by the commission.)

Many Haitian community leaders attended and spoke at the November 15 county commission hearing on the redistricting plan -- the final public hearing before the vote of approval. After the commission adopted the plan, the same community leaders endorsed the North Miami resolution of November 27. "[The new map] fragments the [Haitian] community's strength and breaks up the community's interests," declares attorney Marie Estimè-Thompson, vice chairman of the Haitian American Grassroots Coalition's (HAGC) redistricting task force.

The HAGC, a five-year-old, diverse activist group that works to improve Haitians' social, political, and immigration conditions, also is involved in efforts to amend the county charter to increase the number of county commissioners from thirteen to fifteen. One of the additional commissioners could very well be Haitian, says HAGC chairman Jean-Robert Lafortune. "This is one path," Lafortune goes on. "The other path would be to [take legal action] against the map -- to ensure we have adequate representation."

Courtenay Strickland, coordinator of the ACLU's Florida Equal Voting Rights Project, has been advising the coalition. She says she first became involved in the redistricting issue when the ACLU began receiving complaints about Kreyol speakers being turned away from polls in last year's elections. Now the ACLU is actively supporting the addition of two commission seats as well as placing Kreyol-language voting materials at all precincts in the county (some already supply Kreyol translations). "The standpoint we're coming from," Strickland notes, "is this is a community that's growing by leaps and bounds, very unique in its [cultural] characteristics, and it should be able to have a voice in the political process of this community. It's a matter of basic inclusion."

It's also a matter of time. During the past decade, South Florida's Haitians have made striking political gains, more than any other Haitian community in the nation. Thus the political representation may come simply as a matter of demographic growth and the maturation and assimilation process all immigrant groups experience. So maybe North Miami being divided into four sections won't be as bad as the town fears, argues political consultant Ric Katz. "It's a very compelling argument to say we have the critical mass to elect someone, since we're all in the same district," Katz offers. "But since this is a ten-year horizon, there is the opportunity for greater gain, because I am convinced even if the Haitian population is divided among several districts presently, that Haitians could grow to be the majority in at least two and maybe three districts. Every ten years you have to re-evaluate, and that means change, and people are uncomfortable with change."


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