Turf war erupts in County Commission redistricting debate

Tempers flared Tuesday as Palm Beach County commissioners sparred over where new district boundaries should be drawn, dragging the Port of Palm Beach and the residential community of Boca Grove into their tug of war. The heat rose even among some commissioners who won’t be on the next election ballot.

The county is required to update district boundaries as a result of the 2010 Census and must follow the parameters set by the Fair Districts Amendments. In May, commissioners approved additional criteria for districts, such as following municipal boundaries, maintaining communities of interests and preserving the core of existing districts.

Four map options were presented by Deputy County Administrator Verdenia Baker to commissioners for discussion. Baker said efforts were made to reduce the number of commissioners representing a municipality wherever possible.

Several people spoke regarding the representation of Peanut Island. Port of Palm Beach Commissioner Jean Enright said that while the port owned Peanut Island, it is represented by a different commissioner than the port and Riviera Beach. Commissioner Karen Marcus was quick to point out that the county owned part of the island, and that she had represented it well over the years.

“I am passionately interested in Peanut Island,” Marcus said, citing her early work on grants that she said made the island what it is today and her ongoing interest in its future. Marcus, who is serving the last year of her tenure due to term limits, said her replacement “will be equally informed” about the island, and she asked the board to keep it in District 1.

Commissioner Priscilla Taylor disagreed, saying commissioners are “supposed to be passionate about the whole county.” Taylor said that the island is owned predominantly by the port, and with the lack of recreational amenities in District 7, commissioners should do the right thing and give District 7 the same opportunities as the other districts.

One of the biggest areas of debate involved the community of Ibis. Ibis residents had requested in May to be moved to District 1 due to its proximity to “communities of interest,” such as PGA National, Steeplechase and Mirasol. But the most popular map option left the neighborhood in District 6. Commissioner Burt Aaronson suggested Ibis be moved to District 2, since it is in the city of West Palm Beach, saying the community should be represented by the same county commissioner as the city. But Commissioner Paulette Burdick disagreed, preferring Ibis stay in District 6, adding that District 2 wasn’t a good fit because of the large body of water separating it from the West Palm Beach city boundaries. Ibis, West Palm Beach and western community residents have been butting heads for years over State Road 7 and Roebuck Road development issues.

Commissioner Jess Santamaria drew chuckles when he said there shouldn’t be districts at all, suggesting that commissioners be elected countywide. Santamaria also said he thought elections should be nonpartisan — although when that very issue was considered by the board early in his term, he voted against it.

The community of Boca Grove was the next to draw Aaronson’s ire by requesting to be moved to a different district. Aaronson, who will also be term-limited out by next year’s election, said he had always represented the community and that it should stay in District 5. Commissioner Steven Abrams, who represents District 4 in eastern south county, clarified that it was not he who initiated the request, but the president of the Boca Grove Homeowners Association who came to him to ask that they be moved to District 4. Aaronson, thinking the request came from Abrams, disputed that, saying he had received emails to the contrary and a vote had not been taken by the residents or their board. As the commission chair, Marcus had difficulty keeping order on the dais as Abrams and Aaronson argued over where the community should be placed on the map.

Unhappy with initial discussions, Aaronson said he would draw a new map of his district with all new boundaries. After much debate, the commission ultimately voted to bring back revised maps showing what it would look like to have Peanut Island in District 1 or, alternatively, in District 7, and leaving Boca Grove in Districts 5. A public hearing on the revised maps will be held Dec. 6.

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