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Hispanic Area In Osceola Will Be Split The Best Answers To Redistricting Insults
Hispanic Area In Osceola Will Be Split
By April Hunt | Sentinel Staff Writer
November 6, 2001
KISSIMMEE -- Central Florida's largest enclave of Hispanic residents will be divided for county political races starting in 2002, under a plan approved Monday by the County Commission.
Critics say the plan dilutes their voting power.
"I believe the county officials are following a pattern of excluding minority groups, particularly Hispanics," said Armando Ramirez, a Kissimmee resident and community leader within the county's Hispanic population. "That cannot be."
However, advocates of the plan, which divides the unincorporated Buenaventura Lakes in the northern part of the county, say it provides those residents with more of a voice in local government, providing representation in two districts.
"The redistricting process was not decided in a smoke-filled room behind closed doors," said Sherry Goad, chairman of the citizens committee charged with developing the plan. "This area has grown so much in the last decade that it warrants representation in two districts."
Osceola is nearly one-third Hispanic but has had only one Hispanic county commissioner. The late Robert Guevara was elected four years ago to represent the area when the county was carved into single-member districts. The county later returned to at-large districts, and Guevara's widow, Dalis, lost last year to current Commissioner Paul Owen.
The county formed a citizens advisory committee this summer to recommend how that district and others should be redrawn based on the 2000 Census. The committee of 10 included three Hispanic members, one black member and five women -- an attempt to best reflect the community.
The county had seen a 60 percent population increase in 10 years, and each district needed to be about equal. Hispanics -- particularly Puerto Ricans -- have fueled that growth. Since 1990, the Hispanic population jumped 294 percent, and more than half of Buenaventura Lake's 23,000 residents are Hispanic.
"If there is a chance in the next 10 years that we go back to single-member districts, they have made it unlikely a Democrat could get elected," said County Commissioner Mary Jane Arrington, the commission's only Democrat and only member to vote against the redistricting plan.
The citizens committee that crafted the plan was divided on the redistricting issue, with only six members voting for the change. Those who support it said they think the change provides residents there with more influence, not less. That's because the mostly residential area will no longer be lumped in a district with the county's tourist strip along U.S. Highway 192.
Supporters and critics of the plan threatened legal action, depending on the outcome, some commissioners said.
County attorney Jo Thacker said the decision was legally defensible.
Our position: Running for office and voting are the best answers to redistricting insults.
November 6, 2001
Central Florida's Hispanic voters got slapped in the face again this week when the Osceola County Commission approved a redistricting change that retards the political influence of Hispanics.
The Osceola County Commission delivered its insult on Monday when it approved splitting the sprawling Buenaventura Lakes community, which has a large Hispanic population. That decision has the potential to diminish the political voice of Osceola's Hispanic community -- 30 percent of the county's population.
There are no Hispanic elected officials in Osceola County. But it shouldn't be that way. Under the single-member district system that previously existed in Osceola, Robert Guevara, a Puerto Rican, was elected to the county commission in 1996. But in the wake of Mr. Guevara's election, voters erred badly when they decided to return to an at-large system that makes it more difficult for minorities to run and win countywide.
To make matters worse, when Mr. Guevara died in office last year, Gov. Jeb Bush appointed a non-Hispanic to fill the vacancy. No wonder many Hispanic voters in Osceola feel betrayed.
Unfair political treatment for Hispanics is not limited to Osceola. In Orange County, the Orlando City Commission approved a redistricting plan that slightly reduces the Hispanic population in the community that has the most Hispanic residents. Yet there are no Hispanics on the Orlando City Commission even though Hispanics comprise 17.5 percent of the city's population. Later this month the Orange County School Board is poised to approve a plan that doesn't do enough to improve the chances to elect a Hispanic to the School Board. There are no Hispanic School Board members, even though more than one in five students are Hispanic.
The lack of Hispanics among the area's elected leadership cheats everyone because the concerns of a significant portion of the community are not getting the full consideration they deserve when decisions are being made.
It's apparent that the redistricting plans for the Osceola County Commission, the Orlando City Commission and the Orange County School Board gave more weight to protecting the status quo than to fairness for Hispanics.
During the next decade the rapid growth in the Hispanic population certainly will increase that community's ability to elect representatives. But why wait? Hispanics with leadership aspirations should begin now to do their homework, get involved in community organizations and run for office.
And, most important, Hispanics need to vote in big numbers. That is what can counteract unfair redistricting more than anything. If Hispanics were to vote in a larger-than-expected number, they might be able to sway elections in their favor.
Even with this unfair redistricting, electing an Hispanic is not impossible. Mel Martinez, who was born in Cuba, was elected Orange County chairman. He succeeded because he built a record of community service and had a solid platform on critical issues that affect all residents.
What's critical now is that other Hispanics must follow suit. The community needs them. It's not enough to wait another 10 years for a new redistricting that could end up once again protecting incumbents.