Staff confirms it is working on evening sessions, with dates and locations to be announced; redistricting county webpage also created to assist the public
Sarasota County staff already is trying to nail down dates, locations and times so a redistricting meeting can be held in each County Commission district before the end of September, Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson reported to the board on Sept. 11.
That way, he explained, members of the public will have ample opportunities to participate in the board’s redrawing of new district boundaries, which must be concluded before the end of the year to comply with state law.
Staff’s goal also is to schedule the district meetings in the evening, Johnson confirmed, after Commissioner Alan Maio raised that point.
During their redistricting discussion this week, all the commissioners except Christian Ziegler made it clear that they want to continue with the process. On Aug. 27, Ziegler cast the lone vote against redrawing the lines this year, saying he felt the board should wait until after the 2020 Census data has been released.
Johnson also pointed out that, because of the compressed timeline under which they are working, the commissioners on Oct. 7 will need to vote on the versions of the district maps that they wish to advertise for a public hearing that will be conducted on Nov. 5.
The final district boundaries should be approved on Nov. 5, Johnson emphasized. Then, according to state law, the resulting map will have to be advertised for two consecutive weeks. Johnson pointed out that county staff has created a webpage on the county website that already features the preliminary maps and other materials related to the redistricting initiative.
One controversial issue that arose during the Sept. 11 discussion was the fact that four of the commissioners had spoken on the phone prior to that day with the consultant staff hired in late June to assist with redistricting, Kurt Spitzer of Tallahassee.
In addressing that fact, Spitzer said, “We discussed, you know, preferences over the phone …” He added that he had spoken with county staff members, as well.
Commissioner Michael Moran, Spitzer said, was the only board member who chose not to talk with him.
“Did you meet with me individually or any other [board] members other than [via] one phone call?” Commissioner Nancy Detert asked Spitzer.
“No,” he replied.
“Did we sit down and draw these maps together?” she asked him, referring to the three alternate maps he had provided the commissioners late Monday afternoon.
“No,” Spitzer said. “We didn’t have maps in front of us.”
Spitzer added that the consistent concern expressed by each of the four board members he spoke with was the necessity of getting the population deviation for each district “as close to zero as possible and to try to make [each district] as compact and … ‘blocky’ as possible.”
Chair Charles Hines pointed out that his first thought upon seeing Spitzer’s maps was, “‘There’s no real radical changes here.’”
Spitzer reiterated comments he made to the board on Aug. 27 — that Districts 3 and 5 have gained population since the 2010 Census was conducted, while the other three districts have lost people. As a result, he had to shift more people into Districts 1, 2 and 4, he added.
For example, he said, he moved part of the city of Venice from District 3 — which is Detert’s district — into District 4.
Also on Sept. 11, Detert reiterated a comment that she made during earlier redistricting discussions. “We have invited organizations and the general public … to draw their own map,” she told Johnson. However, she continued, “I just want to be sure that people that are saying they represent a certain community actually live there. … There are philosophies about who feels comfortable with the configuration of their district.”
She added that she especially is interested in learning whether the majority of North Port residents would prefer that the entire city be in one district, because North Port is the county’s fastest growing municipality.
Johnson said that staff hopes residents will attend the meeting in their district, if at all possible, as specific information related to that district will be the focus of the presentation. However, he continued, “We want to make sure if someone is unable to attend the scheduled meeting in their district,” that person will have four other opportunities to attend a session. “We will have consistent messaging and communications through all those meetings,” Johnson added.
Staff members of the county’s Neighborhood Services Division will assist with the public sessions, Johnson also explained. They have “tactics to get the best information from large groups of people,” he said.
Staff members then will deliver to the board, “to the best of our ability,” he continued, “a summary of the community input that we received … to draw out themes or trends that we’re seeing.” Further, Johnson noted, staff will provide the board members what he called the “raw information” from the sessions.
A mix of public comments
Six people did address the board on Sept. 11, and the majority voiced continuing opposition to the redrawing of the district boundaries before the results of the 2020 Census have been released.
One speaker, Jono Miller of Sarasota, presented the board members with copies of five district maps he had drawn. “My interest lies in how the governance actually works and how that’s related to the district … how representation works,” he said.
Based on the population data Kurt Spitzer & Associates had provided the county, Miller continued, he had determined that each of the municipalities could be in its own district. “I think it might be a good idea.”
Given the fact that almost 60% of county voters in November 2018 approved the implementation of Single-Member Districts, Miller said, “If you live in the city of Sarasota,” for example, “it should be easy to find out who your commissioner is.”
For another example, he added, it makes more sense to him to have one board member representing the residents in the eastern part of the county.
Under the Single-Member District system, a voter will be able to cast a ballot just for a candidate who lives in the same district as the voter. All five of the current commissioners repeatedly have voiced their opposition to the system.
Prior to the start of the public comments, Chair Hines voiced his view that it is better to have the cities divided into more than one district. Considering all the issues the commissioners have to deal with, he said, “I think it would be unfair to those cities” to have only one commissioner each. With at least two representing a city, he added, “If you disagree with [one] commissioner … at least you have one other [commissioner] to turn to. Today you have five.”
Kafi Benz, president of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), agreed with Hines. She encouraged the board members to approve new maps that divide each city into more than one district, “so there isn’t a tendency to parochialism by the citizens or the county commissioners.”
Susette Bryan, secretary of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE), told the commissioners that Sept. 11 probably marked her 12thappearance before them to object, on behalf of SAFE “to the manner in which you have done this. … You have made it clear that you prefer representing everyone. … The people wanted a change.”
SAFE gathered the necessary number of voter signatures to get the Single-Member District Charter amendment on the November 2018 ballot,
Diving into details about the proposed maps
During his Sept. 11 presentation, Spitzer defended the board members’ intent to draw new district boundaries. He reminded them that his research — which incorporated population data available from the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR) and information from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office — showed a population deviation between the smallest district and the largest to be about 12%.
Spitzer called that “quite significant.”
“Generally speaking,” he continued, “if the spread is more than 10 points, it raises a red flag,” though he conceded, “That’s not absolute.”
The updated population figures county staff derived by using the international software system called ESRI put the largest deviation between districts at 9.1%, Spitzer said. “If I was standing before you in 2021” with a 9% spread, he continued, “I would say you should redistrict.”
Spitzer also referenced the implementation of the Single-Member District system. “Because of that, it was more important that the population numbers be as accurate as possible.”
At one point, Commissioner Ziegler noted a concern that he said he raised when he spoke on the phone with Spitzer: Because Spitzer used Census block data to draw the alternate maps, small numbers of homes could end up in different voting precincts, necessitating extra expense for the Supervisor of Elections Office staff to provide what Ziegler called “custom ballots.”
Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner and his staff had worked hard, Ziegler pointed out, to ensure that the precincts are numbered in a pattern that reflects the district in which they are located, with those numbered in the 100s all in District 1, for example.
“I would like to avoid ballot variations within single precincts,” Ziegler added.
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis responded that both he and County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht had spoken with Turner. “His bigger concern,” Lewis said of Turner, focused on “the boundaries of the precincts … [and] not necessarily who had to vote [in] what precinct.”
Based on his and Elbrecht’s discussions with Turner, Lewis added, Turner seemed to feel the proposed maps were fine.
Spitzer also explained that his starting point with the proposed maps was the current districts, which were approved in June 2011 on the basis of the 2010 Census data.
He also said he followed what he called common redistricting principles, in keeping each district relatively compact. Additionally, he noted of his districts, “They’re contiguous. … There are not serpentine shapes or odd shapes. … We followed significant manmade and natural boundaries” and tried to preserve communities of interest.
“It’s really hard to try to attain all of those criteria in any map,” Spitzer stressed. “It’s a balancing act.”