City Commission sends letter to County Commission, asking questions about proposal for redistricting

Expense and data that will be used as basis for the process among city board’s concerns

Interim City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs (second from left) joins City Attorney Robert Fournier (far left), City Manager Tom Barwin (second from right), Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown (far right) and the commissioners at the dais on March 4. File image

With numerous questions having been raised in the community about the Sarasota County Commission’s plans to redraw its district maps before the end of this year, the Sarasota City Commission has sent a letter to the County Commission, asking specific questions about the process.

The city board voted 4-1 on July 15 to take that step. Only Commissioner Hagen Brody opposed the action.

The letter was dated July 23.

As of late in the afternoon of July 25, the City Commission had not received a response, city Communications Specialist Jason Bartolone told The Sarasota News Leader.

The County Commission began its summer recess on July 22. It will return the week of Aug. 19.

Late during her board’s regular meeting on July 15, City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie raised the issue of early redistricting. Noting that discussions already had taken place among the Venice city commissioners and the North Port city commissioners, Freeland Eddie said she wanted to know the County Commission’s reasons for proposing the process “in advance of the 2020 Census counts.”

Additionally, she said, she wanted to know how much the county would have to pay for a consultant to facilitate the redrawing of district maps. (In late June, county staff hired a Tallahassee firm, Kurt Spitzer & Associates, as the consultant to assist with the early redistricting process. A county Procurement Department document indicated the total cost of the firm’s work would be no more than $50,000. See the related story in this issue.)

This is a copy of the July 23 letter from the City Commission to the County Commission. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Freeland Eddie indicated that the revised population counts for each of the five County Commission districts — provided to the County Commission in May, following staff research — showed the figures are “within a permissible margin of 10%.”

Representatives of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE) have pointed out to the County Commission that the U.S. Supreme Court has called that threshold an acceptable one in accord with the U.S. Constitution’s provision for one person/one vote.

However, on May 22, County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht advised the county commissioners that the 10% stipulation is not included in the Florida Statute that governs redistricting by county commissions.

Freeland Eddie told her colleagues on July 15 that she also wanted to know whether the County Commission would use voter registration data instead of population data as the basis for new maps. She added that some members of the public have the impression that the voter figures will be used.

When County Commissioner Nancy Detert first proposed redistricting — at the end of a Feb. 26 board workshop on a different topic — she referred to “a pretty noticeable disparity” in the population figures for the five districts.

However, a Sarasota County Charter Review Board member earlier this year talked about the imbalance of the current commission districts, referencing voter registration numbers.

On Feb. 5, in response to a Sarasota News Leader question following up on that Charter Review Board discussion, Rachel Denton, communications and voter outreach manager for the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office, provided the following figures for the number of voters in each commission district as of that date:

  • County Commission District 1: 57,353.
  • County Commission District 2: 61,755.
  • County Commission District 3: 66,030.
  • County Commission District 4: 64,238.
  • County Commission District 5: 73,769.
A graphic shows the current County Commission districts. Image courtesy Sarasota County government

After county staff researched data for the County Commission, staff provided the board a May 15 memo with the following population estimates for each district:

  • District 1 — 81,106.
  • District 2 — 79,915.
  • District 3 — 87,130.
  • District 4 — 80,685.
  • District 5 — 87,525.

During her remarks on July 15, Freeland Eddie also told her colleagues, “I think we have an obligation from a fiscal perspective to ask the questions with regard to whether or not [the redistricting] is an action that is required …” After all, she pointed out, city taxpayers also pay county taxes.

During County Commission discussions of the issue, Commissioner Michael Moran has joined Commissioner Detert in pointing to the Florida Statute that gives the county board the authority to undertake mid-decade redistricting.

Advocates for action

Two speakers who addressed the City Commission on July 15 — North Port City Commissioner Jill Luke and Gabriel Hament, who works with Cumberland Advisors in Sarasota — urged the City Commission to send the letter Freeland Eddie was proposing.

“Just because you can do something doesn’t make it right,” Luke said. “The County Commission has the right to redistrict, but, as we know, power can be abused.”

She told the board members, “I ask you, as a commission, to stand for what is right and oppose redistricting of county lines that are currently constitutionally compliant.”

Hament said, “What is becoming clear to me is that there is a concerted effort by the County Commission — leaders of one political party — to confuse and mislead the public” about the necessity of redistricting …”

All of the county commissioners are Republicans.

Gabriel Hament and North Port City Commissioner Jill Luke appear before the Sarasota City Commission on July 15. News Leader image

He, too, Hament continued, had heard discussion referencing use of registered voter figures instead of updated population counts as the basis for redrawing the county districts.

(City Attorney Robert Fournier later clarified for the city commissioners that redistricting has to be undertaken on the basis of population counts. Using voter registration data is illegal, he added.)

Moreover, Hament said, the county has more pressing needs for its revenue, including upgrading its wastewater treatment facilities, improving other infrastructure and spurring the creation of affordable housing developments.

How best to proceed

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie. File photo

Following the public comments, Freeland Eddie asked the advice of City Attorney Fournier regarding whether the City Commission should send the County Commission a letter or adopt a resolution.

If the board members just wanted to pose questions of their county counterparts, Fournier replied, then a letter would be the better choice. However, the City Commission could call for the drafting of a resolution if it wanted to take a stand on the early redistricting, he added.

“I think I feel most comfortable right now asking for a written letter,” Freeland Eddie told her colleagues. “I’d like to hear directly from the county. … Then, if this body feels it’s appropriate,” she continued, it could conduct a discussion about drafting a resolution.

“I am not in favor of saying to the county, ‘We oppose you doing [the early redistricting],’” Mayor Liz Alpert told Freeland Eddie. Alpert added, though, that she was comfortable with the proposal for asking questions of the County Commission.

“Power doesn’t concede anything unless demands are made,” Commissioner Willie Shaw said. “It never has; it never will. We’re dealing with power.”

“I don’t disagree with that,” Alpert responded.

After Freeland Eddie made her motion calling for the City Commission to send the letter, Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch seconded it.

Commissioner Brody offered no comments about his “No” vote.