Public may attend session on redrawing La. districts - Workshop had been roped off from view

Ed Anderson
October 1, 2009

BATON ROUGE -- A two-day workshop on the nitty-gritty process that guides redrawing political boundaries of the state's congressional delegation, Legislature and other public bodies will be open to the public, not closed as originally planned, House Clerk Alfred "Butch" Speer said Wednesday.

Speer said the two-day session, which will not take any votes or binding actions, will begin today at 10 a.m. and will run through Friday at noon at the Parc England Hotel on the site of the old England Air Force Base in Alexandria.

Speer said he received an e-mail from Rep. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, the chairman of the House Committee on House and Governmental Affairs, notifying all committee members that the retreat will be open to the public and the news media.

The Senate Committee on Senate and Governmental Affairs is also scheduled to attend the workshop.

"Our whole intention was to have an environment that was distraction-free" and allowed new members of the committees to ask questions freely and learn the remapping process, Gallot said. "But the distractions leading up to it have become a bigger distraction (than holding an open session). We didn't want to not go forward with the training because it is very important. . . . This has created a distraction in an area where we were trying to educate members."

Gallot and House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, originally said the workshop should be closed to allow lawmakers to ask frank questions about the process and how it works. That process begins again in 2011 after the 2010 census figures are in.

Many members of the committees are new and have not gone through the remapping process before, they said. Tucker was in China and could not be reached.

--- Chorus of critics ---

An exception in the Open Meetings Law allows the closed session to be held for "informal presentations" as long as no votes are taken. Editorial writers, columnists, radio talk show hosts and government watchdog groups have come out against the closed-door session.

Gallot said there has been "misleading information" in the media and from some government watchdog groups like the Council for a Better Louisiana and the Public Affairs Research Council. Both organizations opposed the closed-door meetings, saying it would have gotten the once-a-decade political process off on the wrong foot. He said the organizations as well as critics in the media "have made some ridiculous charges and accusations" about deals being cut at the sessions, accusations he denied.

Gallot said no action can be taken because lawmakers have to have 2010 census data to draw political boundaries and those numbers will not be available until early 2011. He said the panels will tour the state and hold nine public meetings to gather comments by the time the March legislative session opens and hold more meetings after the census numbers are finalized.

"I should have said it was open from the beginning," Gallot said. "It (the two-day background session for the two panels) will be like . . . watching grass grow."

Speer said House and Senate staffers will present a history of redistricting in the state and show how the state's population and demographics have changed over the years. He said lawmakers will also hear from reapportionment experts in Florida and from the National Conference of State Legislatures, a clearinghouse of data for lawmakers, and will be briefed on federal and state laws and court decisions that have guided redistricting .

The committees will break into small groups Thursday afternoon and draw mock districts for Florida based on that state's 2000 population, Speer said. On Friday, legislative staffers will review and critique the plans drawn.

--- Failing 'the smell test' ---

"It was stupid" to close the meeting in the first place, said Sen. Joe McPherson, D-Woodworth, a veteran of past legislative redistricting battles. "It just didn't pass the smell test."

PAR President Jim Brandt and CABL President Barry Erwin hailed the opening of the sessions. "There was no reason not to have it public in the first place," Brandt said. "It would have sent the wrong message. We are thrilled" the retreat is open.

"Thank goodness they came to their senses," Erwin said. "It is unfortunate it took all of this public pressure to get the committees to do what everybody knew was the right thing in the first place. . . . If the Legislature needs this information, the public needs it too."

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Ed Anderson can be reached at or 225.342.5810

Caption: Jim Brandt 'There was no reason not to have it public in the first place' [1515977]

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Record Number: 424705082
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