Class action lawsuit filed to prevent use of new County Commission district lines in 2020 elections

Fredd Atkins among three Newtown residents arguing violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act

This is Alternative Map 4.1, which is based on a map submitted to the county by former Sarasota County GOP Chair Robert Waechter. It won commission approval on a 3-2 vote on Nov. 19. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Dec. 10, as part of its Consent Agenda of routine business items, the Sarasota County Commission acknowledged the proof of publication of the new district boundaries it adopted after an approximately three-hour-long hearing on Nov. 19.

According to the process outlined in the Florida Statutes for redrawing district lines in odd-numbered years, the commission needed to direct the clerk to the board “to enter [that acknowledgement] on the minutes,” as explained in a Dec. 10 memo from County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to the commission.

That memo said, “Section 124.02, Florida Statutes states, in pertinent part:

“(1) Whenever the boundaries of existing county commissioners’ districts are, from time to time, changed by the board of county commissioners, it shall cause an accurate description of the boundaries to be entered upon its minutes and a certified copy thereof to be published at least once each week for 2 consecutive weeks (two publications being sufficient) in a newspaper published in said county.

“(3) Proof of such publication or posting shall be entered on the minutes of the board. The publication or posting of such copy shall be for information only and shall not be jurisdictional.”

Lewis’ memo added, “Publication, as required by state law, has been accomplished and a copy of the proof of publication is attached hereto.”

Then, on Dec. 11 — also to comply with state law — the commission unanimously approved the minutes of the Dec. 10 meeting. Chair Charles Hines thanked the Board of Records personnel from the Office of the Clerk of Circuit Court and County Comptroller for their quick action in completing the minutes, especially — as Hines indicated — the Dec. 10 meeting had a long agenda.

Fredd Atkins. Photo courtesy of Fredd Atkins campaign for District 1

With those final steps taken to meet the requirements of state law, three Newtown residents filed a class action lawsuit over the new district lines on the morning of Dec. 12, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, in Tampa. Among the plaintiffs is former Sarasota Mayor Fredd Atkins, who had filed as a Democrat for the commission’s District 1 seat, which is up for election in 2020.

The class “exceeds 11,000 individuals,” the complaint says.

The plaintiffs ask that the court “permanently [enjoin] the County Commissioners from redistricting until after 2020 census figures have been determined.”

Further, it calls for an extension of the deadline for candidate filing for the 2020 County Commission election, and it asks the court to retain jurisdiction of the action until the commission’s redistricting plan “is promulgated in accordance with constitutional requirements.”

The attorneys for the plaintiffs are Lawrence A. Kellogg of the Miami firm Levine Kellogg Lehman Schneider + Grossman; Steven D. Hutton of Hutton & Dominko of Sarasota; and Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr., the developer of Palmer Ranch, whose address is listed as Coral Gables.

The complaint identifies Kellogg as counsel and Culverhouse and Hutton as co-counsel. Culverhouse is a former federal prosecutor.

Kellogg was lead trial counsel “for Mrs. Hugh Culverhouse in litigation involving the Hugh F. Culverhouse Trust, the former owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers,” his law firm’s website says. Mrs. Culverhouse “successfully collected … judgments of $11.5 million and $25 million,” the website adds.

“Mr. Kellogg has represented the Culverhouse family and Culverhouse controlled entities in other complex cases,” the website notes.

The new district lines the County Commission approved on Nov. 19 moved Newtown from District 1 into District 2, making it impossible for Fredd Atkins to continue his campaign.

Lawrence A. Kellogg. Image from his law firm’s website

The map adopted by three of the county commissioners — Nancy Detert, Alan Maio and Michael Moran — was blasted by Newtown residents as a politically motivated means of keeping Atkins off the county board and keeping Newtown residents from voting in 2020.

In November 2018, county residents approved a Charter amendment establishing Single-Member Districts for the County Commission. Voters may cast ballots only for candidates who live in the same district in which they reside. Previously, all county commissioners were elected countywide.

Numerous speakers who appeared before the County Commission during the Nov. 19 public hearing, and during a special meeting on redistricting conducted on Oct. 30, urged the board members not to disenfranchise Newtown voters. Members of the public charged that such an effort would be seen as a civil rights violation.

Nonetheless, only Commissioners Hines and Christian Ziegler opposed the new map.

Moran, a Republican, holds the District 1 seat. He first was elected in November 2016, as was Detert, who holds the District 3 seat. She has announced her plans to run again for the commission.

As a matter of practice, the county does not comment on pending litigation.

Details of the complaint

Along with Atkins, the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit filed this week are Mary Mack and Michael White.

Detert, Maio and Moran are named in the action in their capacity as members of the commission. The complaint does not name Hines or Ziegler individually.

Referring to the Nov. 19 adoption of the resolution that imposed the new commission district lines, the lawsuit says that action “was designed to deprive, and has deprived, thousands of African-American voters living in the Newtown community of the right to vote in the 2020 election for members of the Board of County Commissioners.”

This is a closeup of Newtown in Map 4.1. which the County Commission did adopt on Nov. 19. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Additionally, the complaint says, “The Resolution violates the United States Constitution and the Federal Voting Rights Act. This Action seeks to rectify the County Commissioners’ unconstitutional and illegal race-based redistricting, and restore Plaintiffs’, and similarly situated Newtown residents’, right to vote in the 2020 Sarasota County election.”

The complaint explains that the action “arises under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Voting Rights Act …”

It points out that Atkins was the “first elected African-American citizen to serve on the Sarasota City Board of Commissioners” and that he also served three terms as mayor of Sarasota.

“Over the years,” the complaint says, “residents of Newtown have had to fight not only for the right to vote, but also for their votes to be meaningful. Historically, voting rights in Newtown were limited by a discriminatory structure of the local electoral system, which prevented any African-American from serving as a representative for Newtown in Sarasota city or county government,” it adds.

In 1979, the complaint continues, “through the local chapter of the NAACP, Newtown citizens filed a lawsuit under the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 to legally challenge the system of representation that had historically prevented the election of African-Americans to City of Sarasota government.”

That lawsuit was successful, the lawsuit points out. “As a result,” the new complaint says, “three single-member city commission districts were created, with one a majority-minority district that included Newtown.”
The complaint points out, “Given the opportunity for the first time to cast a meaningful vote, the Newtown community banded together with a record high turnout and elected Plaintiff Atkins as the first African-American City Commissioner.”

The Single-Member District issue

Noting that almost 60% of the voters who went to the polls on Nov. 6, 2018 approved the Single-Member District Charter amendment, the complaint contends that that reform “had another consequence … that existing Commissioners and their money patrons feared. With single-member district voting, Newtown would have a real opportunity to elect a county commissioner who was either African-American or who was responsive to the needs and priorities of the Newtown African-American community in District 1.”

The complaint does not point out that Carolyn Mason, also an African-American, was elected as a Republican to two terms on the County Commission, serving in the District 1 seat. She had to step down from the board in 2016 because of term limits.

Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE) has held rallies to protest the redrawing of district lines this year. It worked to get the Single-Member District Charter amendment approved. Contributed image

All the county commissioners except Ziegler have argued that redrawing the district lines was necessary this year because of the Single-Member District initiative. Otherwise, they said, thanks to significant growth in South County, the districts approved in June 2011 — after the 2010 Census results were released — would have had significant population imbalances.

Chair Hines, especially, has cited the need to ensure the county complied with court rulings affirming the one person/one vote principle in the Constitution.

Yet, the first public mention of any imbalance in the County Commission districts came during a January meeting of the county’s Charter Review Board, when member Donna Barcomb of Sarasota cited figures from the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office to underscore what she characterized as big disparities between the districts in terms of the numbers of registered voters, not population.

Detert broached the issue of redistricting in late February, following a County Commission discussion of an unrelated topic.

Members of the public have pointed out that, regardless of what the commissioners have used as their arguments for drawing new lines, Detert — like Moran — faced the potential of losing her commission seat with the Single-Member District system. Although Detert lives in Venice, North Port made up much of District 3 prior to the approval of the new district boundaries.