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At Long Last, a Grove United?

Thursday Commission Meeting’s Vote

Coconut Grove residents are poised for a collective sigh of relief this week as the community’s historic boundaries are set to be restored under a single City of Miami commission district.

The City Commission on Thursday will take up a resolution to approve a proposed settlement in a long-running lawsuit that challenged the city’s existing commission districts as the product of racial gerrymandering. Under the settlement the city will adopt a new voting map drawn up by the coalition of five residents and four community groups that filed the suit. 

The city also agreed to create a Citizens’ Redistricting Committee to oversee future election maps and to place a charter amendment on the November 2025 ballot that would prohibit gerrymandering that favors candidates and incumbents.

Many local residents are thrilled by the prospect of a Commission District 2 that once again encompasses all of Coconut Grove and its roughly 21,000 residents. 

“Everybody was really pretty upset,” said North Grove resident John Schoendorf, recalling when he and his neighbors learned they were no longer part of District 2. “We felt very strongly, like the people in the West Grove, that we shouldn’t be disconnected.”

Schoendorf and others say the Commission’s March 2022 decision to divide Coconut Grove into multiple commission districts disenfranchised voters, diminished local activism, and created confusion among residents seeking city services. It also upended some longtime residents’ sense of identity.

 “I’ve always felt that both emotionally, physically, and practically, the Grove — anything that happens in this corridor, that used to be not split up — one side affects the other,” continued Schoendorf. “To play games like they did was sad.”

Some long-time residents bemoan what they describe as the naked, self-serving politics of the last redistricting process.

 “How could I not be considered part of Coconut Grove, District 2, now because some guy wants to keyhole his house,” said Lee Scinto. That “keyhole” refers to a wedge of the North Grove that moved from District 2 to District 3, where District 3 Commissioner Joe Carollo owns a home. 

Scinto’s home, in the Center Grove, was moved from District 2 into District 4.

Marya Meyer, whose North Grove home is within the wedge ceded to Carollo’s District 3, complained that the move prevented her from voting in the last election cycle.

 “My vote was taken away,” she said.

The boundary lines also fractured local activism, as once united neighbors were forced to divide advocacy efforts between two different elected officials.

 “When they did this redistricting, we all got separated,” said Rose Pujol, referencing her neighbors and fellow board members of Bayshore in the Grove, a group formed to oppose development plans in their North Grove neighborhood. “Should we be going through another district that we now belong to [in order] to make our voices heard?’”

Multiple residents spoke of uncertainty pulling permits, filing paperwork, and addressing neighborhood issues as shifting district boundaries meant former District 2 residents could no longer rely on longstanding relationships with city employees to navigate local government.

While the entirety of Miami is affected by the pending settlement agreement, Coconut Grove’s role within the legal saga looms large. 

Many of the plaintiffs in GRACE, Inc. et al. v. City of Miami, a case which at one point reached the U.S. Supreme Court, have their roots here. GRACE, Inc. is an acronym for Grove Rights and Community Equity, a West Grove advocacy group. Its Board Vice Chair, Carolyn Donaldson, is also an executive board member of the South Dade Branch of the NAACP, another plaintiff in the case which Donaldson called “an emotional rollercoaster.”

“Frankly speaking, I don’t care if I ever look at another map,” she remarked. “Redistricting wasn’t something I thought about until the commission meeting back in December 2021, when reallocating parts of District 2 and splitting the Grove was introduced without any community input.”

Everyone in the city feels that keeping neighborhoods together is most important.

Carolyn DONALDSON

“My personal affinity to the Grove is because I grew up here on Charles Terrace and felt the neighborhood should remain intact,” reflected Donaldson. “Networking with leaders in other areas is when I became aware that other neighborhoods had the same or similar desires.”

In early April U.S. District Court Judge K. Michael Moore ruled that the city’s existing maps were unconstitutional and ordered the city’s attorneys to discuss with plaintiff’s possible remedies to settle the lawsuit. Any deal would require approval by the City Commission, which will discuss the proposed settlement on Thursday, and Judge Moore. (District 2 Commissioner Damian Pardo is traveling and is expected to miss Thursday’s meeting).

Donaldson urged Miami residents to attend Thursday’s commission meeting to support the settlement agreement. “That will help both the new commissioners and the judge to understand that everyone in the city feels that keeping neighborhoods together is most important,” she said.

The agreement includes a new district map which unifies Coconut Grove and other neighborhoods along “major roads and easily recognizable boundaries,” according to a statement by the ACLU of Florida. The new map will change commissioners’ constituencies, but won’t impact their terms in office. The agreed upon boundaries will take effect with the November 2025 election.

The existing maps are the product of a costly, drawn out, and politically charged process that  began in 2020 as city leaders debated how to realign its five commission districts to account for shifting population densities. Grove residents reported a kind of whipsaw effect as various maps were proposed and debated.

Aware that a new map was produced in June 2023, Bay Heights resident Joseph Lanser said that up until speaking with the Spotlight this week, he and many of his neighbors believed they had never left District 2. “This is all throwing me for a loop now because I thought we had this settled already,” said Lanser after confirming for himself the Spotlight’s revelation that his residence was in District 3.

“When we were going through this last year, I think there were 14 different maps that were proposed throughout the process,” recalled Lanser. “How can a citizen keep up with all of that unless they’re tracking with this quite closely and quite frequently?”

Residents who spoke to the Spotlight were relieved to know the saga may be nearing its end.

“To me, the fact that we have closure is critical,” said Pujol, who noted a continued legal battle could have meant more costs to the city and confusion for residents. “It may not be the perfect map that everybody wanted, but I think they did a damn good job.”

Most residents who spoke to the Spotlight also expressed support for expanding the commission to seven or even nine seats. Donaldson remarked that “one thing we heard loud and clear from other community organizations and neighborhoods was the need for creating more districts.”

As the plaintiffs, city officials and residents prepare to put redistricting behind them, Donaldson looks forward to returning GRACE’s attention to its primary mission: advocating for “equitable economic development while preserving the historic black and Bahamian community, culture and residents” of the West Grove.

“In fact, as we begin to shift gears, a request has already been made to revisit with Commissioner Pardo our earlier discussions regarding future economic, environmental and housing development in West Grove,” said Donaldson. 

“This does not mean we take our eye off the prize in the election process. There is still work to be done.”

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