Members of the public accuse board members again of trying to keep Republican control of commission
Once again this week, Sarasota County Commissioner Michael Moran stressed that the redrawing of board members’ districts would have to take place in every odd-numbered year.
The reason, he also emphasized again on Oct. 26, was the November 2018 passage of the Single-Member Districts Sarasota County Charter amendment.
“This is a reminder to the public,” Moran said during a discussion of proposed new maps that will be considered during a Nov. 15 public hearing. Redistricting, he said, “was never a conversation, ever, in this county until Single-Member Districts came about.”
The Single-Member District voting system, which voters approved almost exactly three years ago, permits a citizen to cast a ballot only for a County Commission candidate who lives in the same district as the citizen. Previously — except for a period of about two years in the early 1990s, when the voting method was in effect — all of the commissioners were elected countywide.
“The Single-Member Districts brought this contentious nature about,” Moran said on Oct. 26. Every opportunity he has, he continued, he reminds the public that the voting system is “bad governance.”
Referencing comments that speakers had made about the redistricting process that morning, Moran also stressed that he is term-limited, having won the District 1 seat for the second time in November 2020.
During the Open to the Public period at the start of the meeting, Siesta Key resident Michael Cosentino asserted that the only reason the board members redrew the boundaries of the five districts in 2019 “was simply to protect Mike Moran’s seat.”
Moran “was despised by East County Republicans,” Cosentino continued, because of Moran’s efforts to facilitate the development of Hi Hat Ranch into thousands of residential dwelling units.
The new District 1 approved in 2019 moved Moran’s 2016 Republican Primary opponent, Frank DiCicco, into a different district, Cosentino added.
Moreover, Cosentino noted, the 2019 redistricting effort disenfranchised the traditionally democratic voters of the African American community of Newtown in Sarasota. They were moved to District 2. That action also eliminated a Democratic candidate who had filed to run against Moran in the 2020 race — Newtown resident and former Sarasota Mayor Fred “Glossie” Atkins.
“The entire disingenuous nature of this redistricting process is very disconcerting,” Cosentino said. This time, he added, Commissioner Christian Ziegler is the vulnerable candidate, with so many Democrats having been relocated into District 2. “All of this is specifically designed to protect his seat.”
During the Charter Review Board meeting conducted on Oct. 20, Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck also talked of County Commission machinations to maintain control of the board, whose members are all Republicans. Lobeck aired the rumor that Sarasota Mayor Hagen Brody, who is registered as a Democrat, plans to run for the District 2 seat. (See the related article in this issue.)
Pushing back against Cosentino’s comments on Oct. 26, Moran said, “I’m not up for re-election.” Moran also pointed out that he beat DiCicco by 20 points. (Moran won 60.94% of the vote in the 2016 Republican Primary.)
Then Moran indicated that he would have kept DiCicco’s residence in District 1 during the 2019 initiative.
Later during that discussion, Moran repeated his earlier comment and added to it: “This isn’t a gentle reminder; this is a hard-core reminder” about the plans to redistrict every odd-numbered year.
Census results dictate redistricting this year
The board is conducting redistricting this year because that is necessary to balance out the population in the five districts, as indicated by the result of the 2020 Census, Moran said. However, he continued, “We are now mandated to look at this every odd year. We will be back here in 2023, doing this again.”
“I just hope that the general public is as educated as they possibly can be on this. This isn’t a one-time event.”
Yet, a county fact sheet on redistricting, which is included on the webpages devoted to the process, says, “The Florida Constitution requires that the county commission determine the need for redistricting after each decennial census.
The 2020 Census data is used to determine whether the districts are as nearly equal in proportion to population as possible. If redistricting is needed, state law requires that the process be completed in an odd-numbered year.”
That fact sheet further notes, “State law also permits the county to adjust commission district boundaries in odd-numbered years in order to keep the districts as nearly equal in population as piossible.”
In an Aug. 13, 2019 memo to the County Commission, County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht wrote that Article VIII, Section 1, of the Florida Constitution says, “After each decennial census the board of county commissioners shall divide the county into districts of contiguous territory as nearly equal in population as practicable.”
Then, in May of this year, in another memo, Elbrecht cited a 1954 Florida Supreme Court decision, Singletary v. State, which said, “While we can think of no better records than the census figures, there may be such. We must assume that if no better records are available the County Commissioners, in the light of this opinion, will avail themselves of these.”
A second Florida Supreme Court opinion that Elbrecht cited — Calvin v. Jefferson Cnty. Bd. Of Comm’rs, added, “[T]he census data provide the only reliable — albeit less than perfect — indication of … districts’ ‘real’ relative population levels.”
That opinion also pointed out, “[C]ensus data is imperfect, and other data (data on registered voters, for instance) is even worse.”
During the 2019 Sarasota County redistricting initiative, R.N. Collins of Sarasota, an economist with expertise in demographics, analyzed the work of the consulting firm that the county hired — which it is using again this year: Kurt Spitzer & Associates of Tallahassee. He found numerous flaws in the process.
After Collins made his concerns public, a subcontractor Kurt Spitzer used, Richard Doty of the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR), acknowledged the difficulty of determining population figures without current Census data.
An earlier revival of Single-Member Districts complaints
Early during a special commission meeting about redistricting that was held on Oct. 19, Commissioner Moran was the first board member to reprise complaints about the Single-Member Districts voting system. (See the related article in this issue.)
“This entire mandated process, time-consuming, expensive … makes people upset and frustrated,” he said. It “was brought about by a small group of sly Democrat opportunists,” Moran added, referring to the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE), which worked to gather the necessary number of petitions signed by registered voters to get the measure on the 2018 General Election ballot.
Moran also alluded to the fact that no Democrat had been elected to the County Commission in decades.
“To this day,” he continued, “it still bothers me greatly that all of the citizens of this county can’t vote for all of the commissioners that make policy decisions that affect their life every day.”
Commissioner Christian Ziegler added, “I echo those comments.”
Ziegler also complained — as he has in the past — that SAFE should have called for all of the Sarasota County commissioners to face re-election after the redrawing of district boundaries. When the Florida Legislature redraws districts, Ziegler pointed out, all the members of the House and Senate have to run again.
Ziegler called the lack of such a stipulation in the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment “a massive oversight.”
Commissioner Nancy Detert noted that the commissioners “were so highly criticized” for redistricting in 2019. Yet, she did acknowledge public support for the Charter amendment, even if the board members opposed it.