South Florida politicians play games with residency law

Are homes away from home district a crime or excusable offense?

"Where do you live?" For most people, it's a simple question.

But for some South Florida politicians it's more of a cat-and-mouse game, as they maintain multiple residences in order to (wink-wink) abide by state law that requires them to live in the districts they represent.

They have their real homes outside their districts, and then they have show homes — often rental apartments or condos — where they are registered to vote, get mail, and make fleeting appearances.

This is nothing new. The Sun Sentinel did an expose of the practice in 2008, finding eight legislators who had homestead exemptions on properties outside their districts and three others who said they lived with their parents within their districts.


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Now, a new wave of residency questions involving South Florida politicians has been creating ripples from here to Tallahassee.

In Dania Beach, longtime city commissioner Pat Flury resigned last month after being bird-dogged by a resident who found she spent many nights at a house in Fort Lauderdale.

State Sen. Maria Sachs, who represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, and state representatives Joe Gibbons, Jared Moskowitz, Hazelle Rogers and Perry Thurston (all Democrats) also spend time in homes outside their districts, WPLG-TV Ch. 10 reporter Bob Norman found in a recent investigation. That has prompted one Republican legislator to call for a criminal probe. Gov. Scott said he's looking into it.

Is this a big deal? It depends.

For city commissioners I think it is, because there's something inherently wrong about voting on taxes and garbage rates in one city if you're really living in another. It just doesn't seem fair to residents.

But for county commissioners and state legislators, I can't get so worked up about it. After all, these folks typically tackle regional or statewide issues, and district maps are so randomly drawn and redrawn (often resembling protozoa) that if someone's real home is a half-mile outside an arbitrary boundary it's not the end of the world.

There are degrees to this. Someone living in Plantation instead of Fort Lauderdale, or Parkland instead of Coral Springs isn't so terrible. But if someone elected to represent Hallandale Beach is really spending most of his time in Jacksonville, that seems like cheating on constituents.

Inconsistencies abound. For instance, the residency law doesn't apply to members of Congress, who can live anywhere in Florida. Allen West (a Republican) caught a ton of grief for living in Debbie Wasserman-Schultz's district, and Robert Wexler (a Democrat) was skewered for listing his in-laws' home in Delray Beach as his residence, when he had a house in Maryland.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, both are former congressmen. Wexler resigned and West lost last November after redistricting prompted him to move from Plantation to Palm Beach Gardens for a friendlier seat.

The cynic in me says maybe all these opportunistic politicians should just buy Winnebagos, so they can pull up to any address that meets their current needs.

But the citizen in me says it's up to local voters to be the final judge. If their elected representatives aren't really representing them, they should send them packing at the ballot box.

mmayo@tribune.com, 954-356-4508.

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