Before deciding whether to proceed with redistricting, County Commission unanimously asks staff to determine current population estimates

County administrator expects quick turnaround through use of software already available to staff

This is the graphic the County Commission considered in June 2011 before approving new district boundaries. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On May 7, the Sarasota County Commission unanimously directed County Administrator Jonathan Lewis “to find for free” — as Commissioner Nancy Detert put it in her motion — “the best numbers [staff] can come up with” to estimate the current population of each of the board’s five districts.

She also called for the report to include the sources of the figures.

After staff has produced that information, commissioners said, they will consider whether they should pursue redistricting in advance of the completion of the 2020 Census.

“I think that could be turned around very, very quickly to the board,” Lewis said of determining the new estimates. He noted that staff could take advantage of additional tools available with the Geographical Information System (GIS) software it already uses for a variety of purposes.

Lewis earlier had recommended that if the board wished to pursue redistricting, it should allow staff to “hire an outside expert to make sure we have defensible methodology on population as we go forward.”

“Generic conversations” with representatives of a couple of firms that could handle the work indicated a range of expense from about $30,000 up to $50,000, he said. That would include a company’s assistance through all the public workshops necessary to redrawing the new boundaries, he added.

This is District 1, with a population estimate as of March. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Six members of the public urged the board not to pursue redistricting until the data from the next Census has become available. Among them was Kindra Muntz, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE). On Nov. 6, 2018, that organization won voters’ support for its Single-Member District method of electing the commissioners, beginning in 2020.

Each voter will be able to cast a ballot only for a candidate in the district in which both the voter and the candidate live. Through the 2018 election — except for a brief period in the early 1990s when single-member districts were in effect— commissioners were elected by voters countywide.

“People of all political parties passed our amendment [to the County Charter] to encourage you, the commissioners, to be truly accountable to us, your constituents,” Muntz told the board members on May 7 as they met in Venice. “You eliminated special elections because of costs,” she added, referring to another County Charter amendment that passed during the November 2018 General Election, one the board itself had proposed.

“Why spend taxpayer dollars to go through an exercise in 2019 when you have to do it again after the Census in 2020?” Muntz continued. Noting that detailed new district maps had been completed, Muntz said they show updated population estimates with a variation no greater than 10% from the largest number to the smallest. Ten percent is the threshold, she pointed out,  “which the U.S. Supreme Court says is the maximum deviation that should be allowed to ensure one person, one vote.”

This is District 2, with a population estimate as of March. Image courtesy Sarasota County

(The new district maps were posted on the county website on March 20, county Media Relations Specialist Brianne Grant wrote in response to an April 30 inquiry from The Sarasota News Leader.)

“Redistricting is a big thing,” Donna Cubit-Swoyer of Venice added on May 7. “It takes a lot of time; it takes a lot of money,” she told the board. “Wait for your 2020 Census and make it right once.”

In pursuit of data

Detert first raised the redistricting issue in late February. She voiced concern that — based on the figures for registered voters in late 2018 — the population counts might be “out of whack” in the five commission districts.

The existing district maps were approved by the County Commission in 2011, using data from the 2010 Census.

This is District 3, with a population estimate as of March. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On April 9, the commission formally asked staff to research what figures could be used legally for redistricting and what legal guidelines the commission would need to adhere to if it redrew the district lines earlier than 2021.

That report was completed in time to be included in the backup agenda material for the May 7 meeting.

Among potential sources of population data, the report explained, is the county’s GIS software, which “uses the latest decennial census data as a base year and produces current year and five-year forecasts from a combination of models and data sources,” including U.S. Postal Service carrier routes and residential construction counts.

Matthew McHugh addresses the commission on May 7 in Venice. News Leader image

(One speaker on May 7 — Matthew McHugh — characterized the available data as “a little bit specious,” especially the use of the Postal Service information. He noted that the staff report made it clear: “Reliable estimates are difficult to obtain.”)

“The [GIS] software company has released [its] 2018 and 2023 forecasts,” the staff report said. Those are available at the block group level, it added, noting that for the 2010 Census, the county was made up of 252 block groups.

A second source of population data, the report pointed out, is the American Community Survey (ACS), which the U.S. Census Bureau produces annually on the basis of “random sampling of U.S. households via mailed surveys.” To produce “an adequate sample size for block group estimates,” the report added, “the ACS combines the household surveys from an area over a period of five years.” Yet, the report stressed, those “are called five-year estimates.”

Further, the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office database could be used to derive population estimates for small areas — such as blocks or block groups — on the basis of housing unit growth, the report continued.

The report also noted the stipulations regarding redistricting as specified in the U.S. Constitution, the Florida Constitution, federal and state law, and the Sarasota County Charter.

How to proceed

During her opening comments on the issue on May 7, Detert noted that even though voters approved the Single-Member Districts Charter Amendment in November 2018, the commission has among its “statutory duties” the responsibility of implementing the amendment.

“I certainly see no harm in getting the [latest population] data,” Detert added. Referencing a letter Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody sent to the Brevard County Commission, Detert said, “Once we get what we can consider the most accurate numbers, we could choose to leave everything as it is.”

This is District 4, with a population estimate as of March. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Commissioner Alan Maio agreed with Detert about wanting to see the new numbers — especially, he indicated, “because there’s been a lot of growth in South County.”

He also concurred with Lewis. “I think we need to make sure we have defensible numbers.” Hiring an expert to assist with that, he added, “is important.”

Commissioner Christian Ziegler sought clarification that the focus this week was just on allowing staff to pursue updated population counts, instead of asking for a board decision on redrawing the district lines.

“Yes, that’s our recommendation,” County Administrator Lewis replied.

“OK,” Ziegler said, “because I’m not necessarily sure where I’m at with redistricting in general [until the next Census has been conducted].”

“I’m curious to see if we are out of whack in some area,” Chair Charles Hines told his colleagues. “But I’m not excited about spending a lot of money on an expert,” unless the “first glance” at the new figures dictates that.

This is District 5, with a population estimate as of March. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Further, Hines pointed to his concern about the timeline. (According to the applicable Florida Statute, the commission would have to complete the redrawing of districts before the end of 2019, the staff report said.)

“It’s May,” Hines continued, and the board takes a break of several weeks each summer. If the commission decided to proceed with redistricting, he continued, it most likely would be November before the board could complete the initiative. “That’s a short timeframe to do this.”

The firms staff had contacted, Lewis responded, had noted the “compressed timeframe, [but] they thought [the work] could probably be done by the end of November.”

He clarified for Hines that he was talking about “the whole kit and caboodle … the entire process. … They said there’s no margin for error, but it could be done.”

Referencing emails the commissioners had received, Ziegler also emphasized, “I have faith and expectation about full transparency, public engagement,” throughout the process, if the board chooses to redraw the district boundaries.