Special meeting to be conducted later this month to give board members opportunity to choose maps for advertisement for Nov. 5 public hearing
On Oct. 7, a consultant Sarasota County staff hired this summer to redraw County Commission district boundaries by year’s end criticized comments his subcontractor made to a Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter. In that Sept. 29 article, the subcontractor called into question the validity of the data being used for the redistricting process.
Yet, on Oct. 7, the Sarasota economist who provided Herald-Tribune reporter Zac Anderson with details about a multitude of flaws on which proposed new district lines have been based emphasized to the County Commission his concerns and raised further questions.
R.N. Collins’ focus has been the block numbers — the actual counts of people in neighborhoods — that were used by consultant Kurt Spitzer of Tallahassee to create the proposed maps.
Collins told the commissioners this week, that, contrary to comments that he had “cherry-picked some of the blocks” to produce examples with the “most egregious” flaws, he actually had given Anderson many examples of errors in the maps. “Over 1,000 serious flaws … render these [population] estimates [from Spitzer] useless,” Collins said.
“Going to the press was not an easy decision,” Collins stressed. However, he had made it plain to the commissioners in public comments on Aug. 27 that he was not getting public records from the county that he had requested in regard to the redistricting effort. He still has not received all the documents he has sought, he said, regarding the process used by Spitzer and the subcontractor, Richard Doty of the University of Florida’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BEBR).
(The BEBR website says Doty is the GIS coordinator and research demographer with the organization. He earned a master’s degree in urban and regional planning, with a specialization in geographic information systems (GIS), from the University of Florida, the website adds.)
Additionally, Collins continued on Oct. 7, he had found “a systematic under-estimation of the Hispanic population that leads to diluted minority voting power.”
Further, Collins said that, based on his analysis of Spitzer’s population counts, he had found “there’s a systematic underestimation of North County populations. There’s a systematic overestimation of South County populations. They do not and cannot even themselves out.”
Earlier that morning, Collins noted, Spitzer had pointed to one of Collins’ examples, which was a 1,700-person error in one block in District 5. Spitzer said he would just shift that block to the city of North Port, Collins continued. Yet, “North Port is primarily in District 3,” Collins pointed out.
“If you use these estimations,” Collins added, “you are telling us that you believe 25% margins of error do not matter.”
Throughout the county, he said, he had found 1,500 blocks — representing 20% of the county population — that had lost population since the 2010 Census was conducted, based on Spitzer’s figures. “And I don’t think that’s right.”
“I think Mr. Spitzer is going to have some conversations with you,” Chair Charles Hines told Collins, after he thanked Collins for his efforts.
When Spitzer returned to the podium, Hines noted Collins’ statements, indicating that Spitzer had seen and heard that evidence, as well.
“I haven’t seen anything!” Spitzer replied. “I’ve got to look at it.”
If Collins’ research is correct, Hines continued, would Spitzer have sufficient time to adjust the three proposed district maps Spitzer has created so the board still could complete the redistricting process this year?
“I need to see what [Collins’ research shows],” Spitzer responded, “but I would do my best.”
Ultimately, after about two hours — and comments from 10 speakers altogether — Commissioner Nancy Detert made a motion, asking Spitzer to analyze a fourth map — created by a member of the public identified only as “Smith” during the meeting — and adjust the lines to bring the district population counts into balance as much as possible. She also directed him to collaborate with Collins. “I’ve worked with Mr. Collins in the past and know his background,” Detert had pointed out earlier.
On Oct. 9, in response to a public records request, county staff sent the News Leader an email saying the person who submitted the Smith map is named Adam Smith. The only information in regard to his address “is that he lives in District 4,” the email added.
Detert further asked Spitzer to report back on all of those efforts during a special meeting that potentially will be scheduled the week of Oct. 20.
Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson had proposed that special session if the board did not want to vote on maps on Oct. 7, which staff would advertise for a public hearing on Nov. 5. Johnson said that if the commissioners agreed to maps the week of Oct. 20, then county staff still would have sufficient time to comply with the state public notice law prior to the Nov. 5 public hearing. The goal, he emphasized, would be approval of the new district lines on Nov. 5.
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis won board approval to leave the special meeting timeline out of the motion. “That way, I have the most flexibility to get the right date and the right time.” Still, he added, that meeting most likely would be set for the week of Oct. 20.
Detert also voiced frustration this week about not having the opportunity to participate in the drawing of the maps. “When we first proposed this,” she said, “it was my vision that we would be sitting in our workroom, with our consultant, doing the maps in a more hands-on way. But I thought you had the software, which it turns out you don’t have,” she told Spitzer.
When she was in the Legislature, she said, a computer program enabled the members to move blocks to even out district populations.
“I still don’t own any one of these maps,” Detert continued, referring to Spitzer’s alternatives and several submitted by the public.
Later, she asked County Administrator Lewis, “What can be our legal participation in this process? Can we meet one-on-one with the consultant? … Do we each get to have input with him?”
“I’m aware of no restriction that would keep you from speaking with him,” Lewis replied.
Before Spitzer addressed the board on Sept. 11, he had spoken with most of the commissioners by phone, in individual conversations. Assistant County Administrator Johnson told The Sarasota News Leader that sessions had been scheduled for Detert, Hines and Ziegler. The Herald-Tribune reported later that Commissioner Alan Maio also talked on the phone with Spitzer.
More worries for Ziegler
Only Commissioner Christian Ziegler voted against Detert’s motion this week, having opposed the idea of redistricting this year. Ziegler has said he would prefer waiting until after the 2020 Census data has been released and then undertake the process.
At one point this week, Ziegler noted that a map a member of the public proposed would put move his residence from District 2 to District 1, which Commissioner Michael Moran represents.
(That map was submitted by former County Commissioner Carolyn Mason, who had to step down in 2016 as a result of term limits.)
“How would that work?” Ziegler asked County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht. “You have two commissioners that are elected in different cycles that are now drawn into the same [district].” (Moran’s term ends in 2020; he has not announced plans yet to file for re-election.)
“If a commissioner is moved to another district,” Elbrecht responded, then that commissioner would be permitted to serve out the remainder of his or her term, under the provisions of the Sarasota County Charter.
Yet, if he and Moran were put in the same district, Ziegler replied, that would mean one district would have no representative until 2022, when Ziegler’s term would be up.
“That’s an eventuality we need to avoid,” Commissioner Maio pointed out.
Because voters in November 2018 approved the implementation of Single-Member Districts, beginning in 2020, a voter will be able to cast a ballot for a candidate who lives only in the district where both the voter and candidate live. Only one commissioner can represent each district.
During his opening remarks on Oct. 7, Assistant County Administrator Johnson noted that a total of 84 people attended the five open houses staff hosted — one in each district — to allow the public to look at Spitzer’s three proposed maps and ask questions of staff.
Altogether, Johnson continued, of the 2,083 responses to a survey about redistricting that county staff also had conducted, 89.25% preferred Spitzer’s Alternative 1 map.
Representatives of the Sarasota County Democratic Party have noted that that option might enable a Democrat to be elected to the commission in 2020, for the first time in about 50 years, because of voter registration in District 1 in that map. The Democratic Club of Sarasota County urged its members to vote for Alternative 1, as a result.
When Spitzer began his presentation, he defended the methodology he used in creating the new district lines. “Given the timeline and funding for this project, we believe that our methodology is sound and acceptable.” He asserted that each of his three alternative maps is “legally defensible.”
(Although Spitzer has continued to use the pronoun “we” in his remarks, research undertaken by the News Leader has found no evidence of “associates,” in spite of Spitzer calling his consulting firm Kurt Spitzer and Associates.)
The population counts for each district, Spitzer added on Oct. 7, “are as nearly equal as possible or practicable.”
Commissioners have stressed that, because of the coming switch to Single-Member Districts, they are obligated to redraw the district boundaries this year, to ensure equitable representation of residents on the commission.
“We’re very comfortable with the accuracy of [the] data,” Spitzer said.
As board members’ began their questioning of Spitzer, Detert referred to the “pretty flamboyant article in the paper” in which Spitzer’s subcontractor, Doty of BEBR, said that he had advised county staff that it would be very difficult to determine adequate block population figures. Doty told reporter Anderson that it would be better for the commissioners to undertake redistricting after the 2020 Census was conducted.
Detert said the article “insinuated a Mr. Doty, who I have never met or heard of,” told the commissioners that they should not redraw the district lines this year, but the commissioners had insisted upon the process.
“We paid you to be our consultant,” she said, addressing Spitzer. “Who is this guy?”
Spitzer replied, “You were never told [to hold off on redistricting].”
He added that Doty is the subcontractor he retained for expertise in demographics, to help with the population data, and that he did not hire Doty for Doty’s [expertise] in press relations.”
Spitzer blamed the staff of Sarasota County Property Appraiser William Furst and the state Department of Revenue for errors in the blocks cited in the Herald-Tribunearticle. He also maintained that the information regarding those alleged errors “was never provided to me directly.”
Yet, Spitzer also told the board — at the very beginning of his Oct. 7 comments — that he had just returned from a vacation out of the country.
Collins, the economist and expert in GIS software, who addressed the board that day, also told the commissioners that senior county staff had made it clear to him at the first open house on redistricting that Spitzer was out of the United States and would not return until just before the Oct. 7 meeting.
As Commissioner Ziegler questioned Spitzer further about the potential for errors at the block level, Spitzer acknowledged, “As you get higher and higher in terms of the number of blocks, the data becomes more and more accurate. … There might be problems at the block level from different blocks to blocks.” However, he added, the same situation would occur if one were trying to determine block population figures with the Esri software county staff had employed to calculate the changes in numbers of residents in the districts.
Hines, too, cited the newspaper article, stressing his concern that “the worst-case scenario would be [that] what we did here potentially is worse” than waiting until after the 2020 Census. When he asked whether Spitzer felt sufficient time was available to conclude the process this year with accurate data, Spitzer said, “As I told your staff, I’m very willing to make further revisions of the data and make adjustments where we think it’s necessary.”
“In terms of methodology,” Spitzer added, “I think it’s as good as we could have been expected to use, given this time constraint that we have.”
Staff hired Spitzer in late June, after the commissioners voted in May to conduct redistricting this year.