West Palm Beach city commissioners tackled a full agenda on Monday, but the topic that elicited the most fireworks wasn’t even on the agenda – single-member districts.
The agenda item was an updated version of the district boundary maps, drawn as a result of the reapportionment required by the 2010 Census. At issue is the division of some neighborhoods that are predominantly African American. Lia Gaines, president of the West Palm Beach NAACP, told commissioners that the districts are not for legislative or congressional seats, and are not single-member, so there should be no need for an equal number of people in each district, as dictated by the new Fair District Amendments passed by voters last year. Gaines also lamented that her group did not have the opportunity to work with the software used to determine the boundaries, and that the city still did not seek her group’s input.
Robbie Littles, a former West Palm Beach city commissioner, recommended that the city change to six from five districts. Claiming a lack of representation and being a strong proponent of single-member districts, Littles also suggested that “a legal suit may be the answer” if the city failed to respond to his requests.
City Attorney Claudia McKenna explained that the city charter, as well as the Fair Districts Amendments, required districts to be contiguous, compact and promote fair representation. She also noted that any change in the number of districts would require a public referendum.
Not everyone considered single-member districts necessary. West Palm Beach resident Shawn Wilson was unimpressed with the prospect, shouting, “Over my dead body!” Wilson said what may have worked years ago would not work today as the city faces different issues than it did before.
A frustrated Mayor Jeri Mouio, along with the rest of the City Commission, after much discussion finally agreed to postpone approval of the maps for two more weeks so that Gaines and her group could work with the software to draw district boundaries that they feel are acceptable.
In other business, an apparent power grab by the Mango Promenade Historic District had several properties on the agenda for designation as historic properties, and for inclusion in the Historic District boundaries. Several property owners objected to being included in the Historic District, saying the limitations imposed on a property owner are too restrictive.
Speaking as an expert on historic properties, Dale Hedrick of Hedrick Brothers Construction said one of the properties had been so refurbished that there was little left of the original structure’s historical qualities. City Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell made the motion to approve the historical designation request, but to exclude all properties whose owners did not want to be included and to make another attempt to reach any property owner who was not present at Monday’s meeting.
Also on the agenda, and passing unanimously, was the first reading of the Chronic Nuisance Property Code. The code would allow costs incurred by the city in maintaining neglected properties to be recouped by specific assessments collected through the property tax bill. Some of these costs include debris removal, lot mowing, and boarding up and securing unsafe structures, among other expenses.
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