Office of the County Attorney and county administrator to check on population data that could be utilized legally and timeline board would have to pursue
Before the Sarasota County Commission potentially launches an initiative to redraw its district boundaries, board members this week asked the Office of the County Attorney and County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to provide the answers to a number of questions.
Among the issues raised by Commissioner Nancy Detert’s proposal for redistricting, commissioners want to know what data legally could be used for such a process. Commissioner Christian Ziegler noted, for example, that he believed the American Community Survey undertaken by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2015 provides an estimate of the county’s population.
Additionally, Ziegler said during the board’s April 9 meeting, the commissioners will need to know the timeline they would have to follow with redistricting to enable Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner and his staff to comply with state regulations in preparing for the 2020 elections.
The commissioners, by consensus, made the staff research a formal assignment. Lewis said he expected to have the information ready in May.
The impetus for the discussion, as Detert noted in late February, is the November 2018 passage of a Sarasota County Charter amendment implementing a Single-Member District process. That calls for a voter to cast a ballot in the primary and general election just for a commission candidate in the district within which the voter and the candidate live. Previously, every registered county voter has been able to cast a ballot for a candidate in each commission contest in a general election.
Detert said she had reviewed figures for the five districts drawn and approved by the County Commission in 2012, after the 2010 Census. She told her colleagues on April 9 that she found the districts “are totally out of balance.” Detert added, “It didn’t make any difference before, ’cause you just had to live in your district …”
“We have the right to change our own boundaries,” Detert pointed out. “It’s our right and responsibility. We don’t have to wait for the next Census.”
She fears, she said, that if the board does not undertake redistricting prior to the November 2020 General Election, losers in County Commission races could bring suit, contending that the districts had population imbalances.
She had spoken with Supervisor of Elections Turner, Detert added. “He’s totally willing to be as cooperative as he possibly can.” In fact, she noted, he had offered to make one of his staff available to assist the board in redrawing district lines.
He also told her, Detert said, that the redistricting would not cause a problem for his staff in terms of precincts, because the Supervisor of Elections (SOE) Office adjusts precincts “all the time.”
Detert further proposed that the commissioners “make this the most open, transparent and, frankly, televised exercise that the county’s ever been through.”
Software is available to help the board members undertake the modification of the district boundaries themselves, she noted.
Further, by ensuring public involvement in the process, and openness of the meetings, she continued, the effort could prove to be an educational one for county residents. “I think that people’s civics have gotten a little fuzzy over the past years. … People don’t understand that government has some rules … and timelines.”
Additionally, Detert said, “I think we all need to work on restoring the average person’s faith in their own government.
Detert asked County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht to read the appropriate section of the Florida Constitution that covers local government redistricting.
Elbrecht referenced Florida Statute 124.01, which says, “The board of county commissioners shall from time to time, fix the boundaries of the [board’s] districts so as to keep them as nearly equal in proportion to population as possible …”
Additionally, Elbrecht said, the Sarasota County Charter calls for the redistricting process to include a public hearing, after proper notice and copies of the proposed district maps have been made available for people to review. The commission has “a deal of discretion” in the process, he added, “as long as it’s done reasonably and in a non-discriminatory manner.”
Commissioners’ concerns aired
Ziegler was the first commissioner to respond with questions, though he said, “I like the idea of being fully transparent and engaging the public …”
When Ziegler asked Detert what data she had relied on to determine the districts are out of balance, she replied that she had asked the Supervisor of Elections Office for the voter registration figures for the districts. However, she said she believed those numbers also reflect the population of each district.
In response to a request from The Sarasota News Leader following the April 9 discussion, Rachel Denton, communications and voter outreach manager for the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office, provided the following current figures for each County Commission district. The numbers include voters whose addresses are withheld for confidential reasons, she said, as well as those whose addresses are a matter of public record:
- County Commission District 1: 56,198.
- County Commission District 2: 60,695.
- County Commission District 3: 64,574.
- County Commission District 4: 63,295.
- County Commission District 5: 73,007.
During the discussion, Detert referenced population figures Lewis had provided for a recent community meeting, illustrating the growth of the city of North Port. When she asked Lewis about those, he explained that they were provided by the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR). However, he added, the BEBR numbers are not sufficiently detailed to help staff determine district population counts.
A document the BEBR released in April 2018 estimated the Sarasota County population at 417,442, with a projection that it could climb as high as 447,600 by 2020 — or even drop to 413,200.
After Ziegler suggested on April 9 that the potential might exist of using the 2015 Census Bureau information, Chair Charles Hines noted that a lot of areas of the county have grown considerably since then. “I think we need a lot more research …”
County Attorney Elbrecht pointed out that the state statute calls for use of population numbers, not voter registration figures.
Ziegler also asked how long the redistricting process would take.
Referencing the state law, Elbrecht explained that the new boundaries would have to be in place before the end of this year. The statute says, “[T]hat changes made in the boundaries of county commissioner districts pursuant to this section shall be made only in odd-numbered years.”
Chair Hines asked how long a person would have to reside in a district before the person legally could seek a County Commission seat.
After reviewing the County Charter, Elbrecht said that Section 6.7 requires an individual to have been a resident of the district six months before qualifying to run for the County Commission district seat.
“There’s no guarantee that we have to work around [a commissioner’s] house,” Detert said.
Ziegler emphasized that the board members were not trying to contravene the will of the voters who approved the Single-Member District Charter amendment in November 2018. What the commission is trying to do, he said, is “fill] in those gaps” that were not detailed in the amendment language. “We’re in kind of an awkward limbo, if you will. … This is basically an effort to clearlylay out what the ground rules are and how this is going to work …”
“Well put,” Hines replied.
When Detert proposed a motion calling for redrawing the district maps, Ziegler asked, “Are we ready to make that statement today?”
Hines agreed with Ziegler again. “The assumption is the [population] numbers are out of whack,” Hines said. However, he continued, that determination needs to be made before the commission embarks on redistricting.
“It seems it would be hard to go too much further,” County Administrator Lewis added, without knowing the legal precedents regarding data that could be used for redistricting between the decennial Census counts and the timeline that would have to be followed.
“I think you got enough to get started,” Hines told Lewis.