Redistricting could spell changes for Miami’s Upper East Side

Could Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones replace colleague Marc Sarnoff as the city’s representative for the Upper East Side?

That’s a possibility, as Miami continues the once-a-decade process of redrawing its commission district maps.

Discussions are already taking place behind closed doors at City Hall about whether to move the Upper East Side out of District 2, the affluent commission district that spans the city’s shoreline from Coconut Grove all the way up to Shorecrest.

The neighborhood would instead become part of District 5, which has historically been made up of struggling urban communities such as Overtown and Liberty City.

Sarnoff, who represents District 2, has to lose about 16,000 residents during the redistricting process. Spence-Jones, who represents District 5, needs to pick up about the same number.

Despite whispers of horse-trading, the two insist they have not talked directly. But Spence-Jones said the idea makes some sense because merging the Upper East Side with District 5 would help consolidate some city services.

“We haven’t gotten into the details yet,” she said. “I’ve heard that the communities along the north end of Biscayne have been discussed as possible options.’’

Said Sarnoff: “The Upper East Side is in play, and the western parts of my district are in play. You have to keep the integrity of the neighborhoods intact.”

The chatter has residents of the Upper East Side wondering what the future holds for their neighborhood.

“The act itself is like rearranging deck chairs,” said Adam Dunshee, president of Miami Neighborhoods United, a collective of community organizations. “But the impact could be quite serious.”

The new district maps were supposed to have been created by August 2011 and brought to the commission in March, according to a memo from City Attorney Julie Bru. But the process got held up, in part because Miami is challenging the latest Census figures. The challenge is unresolved, but redistricting is moving forward.

“It is in the best interest of the city and its residents to have an approved redistricting plan as soon as practicable to avoid a potential law suit for malapportionment, minimize voter disruption and confusion, and to allow candidates ample time to campaign in the new districts,” City Manager Johnny Martinez wrote in a memo in March.

The city has hired Miguel De Grandy as its redistricting consultant. He will address the commission at the end of the month.

The goal is to even out the population to about 80,000 in each of the five districts while making sure minority communities have a voice.

Districts 1, 3 and 4 each have almost exactly 80,000 residents. But District 2 has 96,286 residents, mostly because of growth in Brickell and downtown Miami over the past decade. And the land-locked District 5 has dipped to just 67,059.

“There will have to be some changes,” Commission Chairman Francis Suarez said.

Some observers say shifting the Upper East Side from District 2 to District 5 would be a logical move. The community straddles the two commission districts and has just about 13,000 people.

“Geographically, it makes sense,” said Frank Rollason, an Upper East Side activist and former Miami assistant city manager. “Plus, we have a lot in common with the community to our west. When we are having crime problems, it usually affects people in that district, too.”

But Bill Hopper, the former head of the Morningside Civic Association and a Sarnoff supporter, expressed concerns about being represented by Spence-Jones, who holds the District 5 seat through 2013 and is eligible to run for another term.

“We’re not exactly pleased with the controversy surrounding Commissioner Spence-Jones,” he said, referencing the fact that she was out of office for two years fighting felony charges. A jury acquitted her of bribery, and prosecutors dropped grand theft charges.

Bob Flanders, a co-founder of the Upper Eastside Miami Council, said he, too, would like the Upper East Side to remain aligned with communities like Coconut Grove.

“I just think the waterfront community should be viewed as a whole,” he said. “We have special concerns.”

There are, of course, other ways to balance the districts that wouldn’t involve lopping off the Upper East Side.

District 5 could expand further east, compressing District 2 to a smaller sliver along Miami’s shoreline.

District 2 could also give the area sandwiched between Coral Way and South Dixie Highway north of Coconut Grove to District 4. But in order to fill out District 5, at least two other districts would have to be redrawn.

Like many political debates in Miami, this one has racial undertones.

Spence-Jones, who is black, currently represents a district that is more than 70 percent black, according to the most recent Census figures. Her strongest support comes from historically black neighborhoods like Overtown and Little Haiti.

The Upper East Side is practically equal parts black, white non-Hispanic and Hispanic. Sarnoff is white, and draws most of his support from predominantly white non-Hispanic and Hispanic communities.

Spence-Jones said she is happy to discuss all of the options. She isn’t concerned that expanding the district would dilute the power of black voters in District 5, she said.

“I’m looking forward to growing my district,” she said.