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Miami Should Redraw Commission District Lines

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lauren F. Louis said the 2022 map preserved the ethnic composition of the five-seat commission and that a goal of “diversity of representation” would benefit Miami.

(TNS) — Miami voters could be navigating new districts ahead of the city elections this fall after a magistrate recommended tossing a 2022 map for being centered on preserving the ethnic composition of the five-seat commission.

Civil rights groups scored a preliminary victory in their federal suit over the redistricting map commissioners approved last year that broke up Coconut Grove and other neighborhoods and sparked allegations of gerrymandering for personal and political reasons. The trial judge overseeing the case will make a final decision on whether to order a new map before Miami holds November elections for three incumbent commissioners.

In recommending a new map, U.S. Magistrate Judge Lauren F. Louis cited comments by commissioners fixated on preserving the 2022 ethnic makeup of a board that included three Hispanic members, one Black member and one “anglo” member in a seat long held by a commissioner who is non-Hispanic and white.

While Louis said the stated goal of “diversity of representation” could be good for the city, she said “the Commissioners’ own statements expressly show that they viewed means of achieving that goal through mechanical racial quotas.”

In a Feb. 7, 2022, discussion, Commissioner Joe Carollo, one of three Hispanic men on the board at the time, said that without breaking Miami neighborhoods into different districts, “the outcome of that would be that guys like — that look like us, with last names like us, in the near future might not be elected necessarily from the districts that we represent.”

In a statement, City Attorney Victoria Méndez said Miami would fight the recommendation in federal court.

“The City disagrees with the report and recommendation of the magistrate and will file its objections and arguments to the federal judge who makes the final decision on the temporary injunction,” Méndez wrote.

ACLU attorneys representing several individuals and groups have accused the city of approving an unconstitutional voting map that violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In her report, Louis wrote that the ACLU is “substantially likely” to prove its arguments and recommended an injunction barring Miami from holding elections until a new map is submitted

Two local branches of the NAACP, Engage Miami and Coconut Grove community group GRACE are among the groups suing the city.

“Race was the predominant factor the Commission considered in the redrawing of each of the five Commission Districts,” wrote Louis in her report released Wednesday night. “The Commissioners expressly prioritized preserving the cores of existing districts to preserve the Commission’s composition of three Hispanic commissioners, one Black commissioner, and one white or ‘Anglo’ commissioner.’ ”

Louis’ recommendation now goes to U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore, who can hear arguments from both sides before issuing a final ruling.

Miami hired local lawyer and lobbyist Miguel de Grandy, who has a background in voting-rights litigation, to run the process and recommend new district boundaries. One controversy involved redrawing District 2 to exclude the West Grove, one of Miami’s historic Black neighborhoods. Another centered on the shift into Carollo’s District 3 a corner of the Grove that includes a six-bedroom home owned by the commissioner.

In testimony in the suit, de Grandy defended his plans as balancing the different interests of Miami neighborhoods in figuring out the best way to divvy up representation among five commission seats. District 2 has a concentration of Miami’s affluent coastal areas, which De Grandy described as “more concerned with ‘first world issues’ and social justice,” while District 5, the lone area represented by a Black commissioner, “is more concerned with potholes and having parks in their neighborhoods.”

While commissioners stated they wanted to preserve the 2022 ethnic balance of the board, there’s no longer a white non-Hispanic member in a commission seat. Ken Russell gave up his District 2 seat for a failed run in the Democratic Congressional primary last year, and in February voters replaced him with Sabina Covo, an Hispanic woman.

Alex Diaz de la Portila, the District 1 commissioner and Hispanic, said Covo’s election shows the commission wasn’t solely focused on ethnicity when producing the redistricting map.

“The elected leaders of a city as diverse as ours should always strive to ensure that its public officials truly reflect Miami’s full diversity,” he said. “While racial sensitivity was clearly a factor we considered, it was only one of many.”

Nicholas Warren, an ACLU lawyer out of Tallahassee, said the Covo win captures the mistake Miami made in prioritizing race and ethnicity in deciding the best way to represent residents.

“It boils down to a view of someone of a different ethnicity can’t represent someone on the city commission,” Warren said. “This is just not the racial politics that the voters of Miami want to participate in.”

©2023 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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