WILSON: Access is always appropriate, even in a pandemic

This year, we have the opportunity to do something we won’t be able to do for 10 years: secure our future by demanding a fair and accessible community district process. We will do this by engaging in the process of redistributing, or redistributing district lines. District design gives local people the opportunity to choose their representatives and determine the resources that communities receive. Resources include funding for schools, parks, libraries, hospitals and social services.

But to gain what our communities need, legislative leaders must ensure an open and fair process. They need to announce the redistribution hearings in sufficient time for people to attend, create an easy way for community members to access hearings, and hold hearings in a COVID-19 safe manner. But some of the past behaviors of our elected leaders are cause for concern.

In Florida, the legislative session lasts 60 sparse days. During the 2020 session, lawmakers banned the public from attending committee hearings. The public were unable to access the state building and were forced to go to off-site locations like the convention center and connect to remote access software to share public testimonies. They were not able to connect from the comfort of their homes and there was no accommodation for people with disabilities.

Lawmakers should remove obstacles to democracy, not create them. But in this case, the legislator closed, leaving many Floridians unable to participate. There was no access for the public. With this incident in recent memory, there is understandable concern about the redistribution process.

The redistribution process is one of the few chances that communities have to level the playing field and create lines that serve them, not elected officials. In Florida, however, even common sense is not that common. For example, COVID-19 killed a Floridian every four minutes during the first week of September. So far, more than 48,000 people in the state have died from the disease, and school districts that need masks to help prevent the spread of the virus could be punished. State officials also said companies would be fined $ 5,000 for requiring vaccines for their employees. These threats were made even as the number of people who died from COVID-19 in the first eight months of 2021 exceeded the number of people who died in the state in the year 2020.

We know that most Floridians have had COVID-19 or know someone who has had it. And some people are at increased risk. Communities of color, the poor, those designated as essential workers and those with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable. All of this helps explain why the DELTA variant is causing a new wave of fear.

Given the pandemic challenges facing the state, elected officials need to be careful about how they conduct redistribution hearings. They shouldn’t be using COVID-19 as a pretext to shut down the process, but they should make sure the process is as safe as possible. In a location hard hit by the virus, redistribution hearings must be conducted in a way that mitigates the spread of COVID-19 without restricting the ability of Floridians to participate in the process. Creating a closed process benefits those who seek to stay in power. But politicians should not be able to manipulate constituencies to silence voters’ voices and deprive our communities of resources.

By opening the process, we can all get involved and ensure that our communities remain whole and are heard, included and visible so that we can choose our own representatives who will listen to our needs. That’s what I’m fighting for. After all, access is always appropriate, even during a pandemic.

Jamara Wilson is Equal Ground’s redistribution manager. She is based in Melbourne, Florida.

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