After receiving only two proposals for redistricting assistance, Sarasota County staff approved the cheaper one, citing consultant’s ‘previous experience and condensed timeframe’

New College political science professor’s analysis of proposals questions whether the consultant the county hired had the necessary expertise

These are the Sarasota County commissioners and their districts. Image from the county website

UPDATE: It took more than three-and-a-half hours — with lots of public comments — on Oct. 30 for the County Commission to vote 3-2 to advertise two maps with proposed new commission districts for a public hearing on Nov. 19. Commissioner Nancy Detert made the motion to advertise Maps 2-A.1 and 4.1. Readers will note that 4.1 was the version consultant Kurt Spitzer “cleaned up” after reviewing the submission by Bob Waechter, which Detert asked Spitzer to include in the discussion for the public hearing today, Oct. 30. Commissioner Michael Moran seconded Detert’s motion. Commissioner Charles Hines joined Commissioner Christian Ziegler in voting “No.” As the News Leader understood the discussion, Map 2-A.1 would keep Newtown in District 1, whereas adoption of Map 4.1 would leave most Newtown voters unable to participate in the 2020 County Commission election. We will have all the details in our Nov. 8 issue.

The Florida Statutes allow a county commission to redraw district boundaries between the release of the results of each decennial Census, but only in odd-numbered years.

Thus, when the Sarasota County Commission voted on May 22 to proceed with such an initiative, the board members and staff already knew the work had to be completed by Dec. 31; otherwise, any efforts they undertook would be moot.

To speed up the process, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis suggested that a contract with a consultant could be handled at the administrative level, without the necessity of waiting on another commission vote. He said that, based on staff research, a firm likely could be hired for less than $100,000. (Any expense above that threshold necessitates board approval.)

As a result, on June 20, Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson — under whose purview the redistricting initiative has landed — emailed Lewis, asking for approval of a waiver of the competitive bid process to hire a Tallahassee consulting firm called Kurt Spitzer & Associates.

Lewis provided the go-ahead on June 21, as the Spitzer & Associates proposal’s maximum expense was put at about $50,000.

The decision left slightly more than six months — with a precise order of steps to be negotiated, as detailed in the Florida Statues — for the commission and staff to approve a map with the new district boundaries.

In the following weeks, controversy about the commission’s decision not to wait on the 2020 Census has been heightened by questions about the validity of Spitzer’s population data and his three proposed maps.

In a review — at the Sarasota News Leader’s request — of Spitzer’s consulting proposal to county staff and the only other proposal submitted to the county — from Nantucket, Mass., firm Community Data Platforms (CDP) — Frank Alcock, a New College professor of political science, questioned whether Spitzer had the necessary expertise for the county job.

Frank Alcock. Image from the New College of Florida website

(Alcock’s biography on the college’s website notes that “he teaches courses on world politics, international law and environmental policy. … He has held positions as a senior U.S. Fulbright Scholar to New Zealand, a senior fellow within Florida’s Collins Center for Public Policy and a Belfer Fellow in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.”)

After reviewing the two proposals, which the News Leader provided to him, Alcock offered his comments in an Oct. 22 email.

Spitzer “has a broader, more versatile background that includes some redistricting work but largely consists of association management, intergovernmental relations, and water issues,” Alcock pointed out.

“This might not seem important at first,” Alcock added, “but if you run into problems and questions about the underlying methodology you want to be speaking directly with the expert responsible for it. We did run into problems and the Spitzer-BEBR relationship turned out to be awkward in terms of communication and accountability.”

Alcock was referring to Spitzer’s hiring of Richard Doty, the Geographical Information System (GIS) coordinator and research demographer with the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR), as his subcontractor for the Sarasota Count project.

On Oct. 7, the Sarasota County commissioners directed Spitzer to work with county resident Ron Collins, an economist and GIS expert, after Collins told the board members he had found more than “1,000 serious flaws” in Spitzer’s data.

The results of their discussions are to be one focus of a special County Commission meeting planned for 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 30 in downtown Sarasota, at the County Administration Center.

The county Administration Center is located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota. File photo

“The most notable difference in the [Spitzer and CDP] proposals was cost,” Alcock noted in his Oct. 22 email to the News Leader. “Spitzer comes in at $16,000 for phase I in comparison to $40,000 for CDP. Spitzer’s price tag seems unusually cheap. BEBR would not likely agree to a job requiring significant hours for a piece of $16,000. This tells me they likely already had census block re-estimates (based on property appraisal data in Sarasota County) ready to pull off the shelf.”

In an Oct. 14 email to the News Leader, answering questions about his work with Spitzer, Doty wrote about the accuracy of BEBR population estimates at city and county levels. He added,  “Because this data is only available at city and county levels, we distributed that change in occupancy to the blocks within each jurisdiction so that each jurisdiction matched its 2018 BEBR estimate. For some blocks this may overstate what the likely 2018 block population should be, and for others it may understate it, but it is reasonably accurate at the city, county and district levels. For most of the 11,000+ census blocks in Sarasota County, it should provide a reasonable estimate of population.”

“On the whole,” Alcock added, “I cannot say that the CDP proposal was superior given the cost differential. But there are some questions the county could or should have asked regarding methodology, roles, responsibilities, and accountability. It is no longer clear whether Spitzer is still working with BEBR. If he’s trying to fix errors with estimates that he neither designed nor fully understands we have a problem.”

When the News Leader asked Assistant County Administrator Johnson the primary reason — or reasons — staff elected to go with Kurt Spitzer & Associates, Johnson responded in a Sept. 30 email, “Previous experience and a condensed timeframe to complete the alternative maps.”

As for Alcock’s comment about Spitzer’s experience with water issues, the News Leader found a program for the 33rd Environmental Permitting Summer School, sponsored in July by the Florida Chamber, which listed Spitzer as a speaker. The program says Spitzer “helped found the Florida Stormwater Association in 1993 and served as its Executive Director through 2018. He currently represents [the association] in the Florida Legislature and in the rule-making processes of state and federal agencies.”

Finding a consultant

In its efforts to learn how the commission and staff reached this point, the News Leader first asked Assistant County Administrator Johnson how staff found the companies from which it obtained the estimate for the redistricting expense that County Administrator Lewis cited to the board in May.

“Staff was contacted by professionals in the field,” Johnson replied.

When the News Leader emailed Spitzer to ask how he learned about the County Commission’s decision to hire a consultant, Spitzer responded via email the same day: “I think I saw a news clip about the initiative. A county resident did not contact me.”

Through a public records request and further questioning of Johnson, the News Leader determined that the only other company to submit a proposal for assisting the county with redistricting this year was Community Data Platforms (CDP) of Nantucket.

Alan Worden. Image from a 2016 Nantucket Data Platform video on Vimeo

On Oct. 17, the News Leader spoke by telephone with Alan Worden, founder and CEO of CDP. Asked how he came to submit a proposal, Worden explained that he had been talking with community leaders — including representatives from Sarasota County Government — about the potential of winning a contract for his firm to build data platforms for one or more entities in the county.

On its webpage, CDP says its mission is “to help leaders in nonprofits, government, and small businesses build smarter and stronger communities by harnessing the power of data analytics. Our locally driven community data platforms aggregate the most reliable hyper-local and national data. These platforms then drive CDP’s proprietary methodologies and visualizations, which provide actionable insights so community leaders can make evidence-based decisions.”

For example, Worden explained, Sarasota Memorial Hospital could use CPD data showing how many patients it treats each month, over a period of years. The data would illustrate the changes from the height of tourist season to the periods when the county population is at its lowest level. Analyzing that data, he said, could enable the hospital to achieve more efficiencies in its operations.

During one of his meetings in Sarasota, Worden told the News Leader, someone asked him about submitting a redistricting consulting proposal. “It’s not what we do every day,” he pointed out to the News Leader.

Even though discussions about his firm’s work had been underway for a period of time, he added, “Redistricting took a lot of air in the room.”

He indicated that he was not disappointed that CDP lost out to Spitzer & Associates, noting that he and his team were “not interested” in a process that has proven so controversial.

Hiring CDP would have entailed a much higher expense for the county, based on a News Leader review of its proposal and Spitzer’s.

A history of consulting for local governments

When Spitzer first appeared before the County Commission in late August, he talked about having served as a consultant on redistricting for a number of other local government bodies.

The News Leader found a copy of a proposal that Kurt Spitzer & Associates submitted to Pasco County leaders in 2015, as Spitzer sought a contract to provide consulting services to the Pasco County Charter Advisory Committee. (The Pasco County Commission hired him on March 24, 2015, a Pasco County newsletter said.)

That proposal listed 13 redistricting projects for which Spitzer’s firm had been the consultant. Among the local governments on that list are the City of Daytona Beach, the City of Fort Lauderdale, Jefferson County, Pinellas County and Sumter County.

This is the list Kurt Spitzer & Associates (KSA) included in its 2015 proposal to Pasco County. Image courtesy Pasco County

In a proposal Spitzer submitted to Pinellas County in May 2015, to provide consulting services to that county’s Charter Review Commission, he noted that he had five full-time employees. However, he appears first to have written “1” and then marked over that with a “2” when asked the number of employees he planned to use “to service this contract.”

On the Pinellas County procurement form, Spitzer added that he was submitting his proposal “in cooperation with Analytica Consulting,” a company owned by Herb Marlowe, who “combines expertise in process facilitation, creative thinking, conflict resolution and group decision making to help his clients develop consensus on effective strategies to achieve their desired results. He has extensive experience in working with numerous state and local governments, non-profit associations, charter commissions, etc. throughout Florida, including many projects in Pinellas County.”

For the Sarasota County redistricting contract, the only information Spitzer has offered about assistance is that he hired Doty, GIS coordinator and research demographer with BEBR, as a subcontractor. Doty has confirmed that he produced data for Spitzer.

A tale of two proposals

As the News Leader reported in July, Spitzer made it clear in his proposal to Sarasota County that his firm would be assisted in its work by BEBR, which — he wrote — “provides an extensive range of demographic services for state and local governments throughout Florida, including producing the State of Florida’s official state and local population estimates and projections.”

Spitzer added that his Task 1 work would encompass the following:

  • Meeting “with key staff concerning the project and demographic data needed by the County.”
  • Developing “the database to be used for the project,” based, in part, on criteria including “race, age, significant man-made and/or natural boundaries, city boundaries, neighborhoods, relative compactness of Commission district shape, recognition of existing Commission boundaries, etc.”
  • Layering the updated Census data onto existing GIS information for the county.
  • Preparing a map with the existing district boundaries and calculations of district total and minority population.

In comparison, the Community Data Platforms proposal said it would offer the following:

  • “A team of 30+ experienced data scientists, each specializing in areas such as demography/GIS, statistics, methodologies, programming, data warehousing, data curation, visualization & user experience, etc.
  • “Access to a team of nationally-recognized Advisors (Appendix II)
  • “Experience in scoping critical ‘Pressing Questions,’ focusing first on analyzing the Effective Population
  • “Methodologies and data aggregation strategies (hyper-local, national, and mobility data) to reliably answer the ‘Pressing Questions,’ and
  • “Compelling visualizations to help leaders explain their evidence-based policies, effectively communicate with stakeholders.”
This is the banner on the Community Data Platforms homepage. Image from the website

The proposal added that CDP planned to use “a combination of new technology and conventional sources and methods to develop an accurate, defensible ‘census population’ count for the County and each election district. This measure would serve as the ‘total 2019 postcensal population estimate’ for gauging current existing demographic imbalances among existing districts and as the metric for adjusting boundaries to equalize the total postcensal population across districts, should the County decide to move forward with redistricting prior to the release of 2020 decennial data (in early 2021).”

It further offered innovative technology, noting, “CDP has a well-established relationship with a mobility data provider and has developed robust methods to translate the current (2019) mobility data into high-confidence population estimates by census tract/block group/block and other granular levels necessary for redistricting in advance of 2020 Census full-count enumeration data.”

The proposal added that it would use “[o]ther commercial sources to inform characteristics such as census block origin and demographics such as age, ethnicity, and other household characteristics. CDP has strong partnerships with large providers, namely Civis Analytics. This commercial database has information pertaining to over 250 million Americans.”

In his Oct. 22 email to the News Leader, Alcock provided these additional comments about his analysis of the two proposals:

“The CDP proposal is more detailed with respect to the sources they will use to craft and calibrate population estimates at the census block level. I’m a bit leery of seeing too many ‘ingredients’ in their methodology without knowing how they intend to mix them. But that could be addressed in a follow up query. Their team is very well credentialed with lots of demography expertise and redistricting experience (the lead scholar has authored a best practices manual on this).”