County attorney warns about applicable language in state law
This week, the Sarasota County commissioners asked County Attorney Frederick J. “Rick” Elbrecht to research Florida law related to the redrawing of county commission districts, given the fact that the release of the 2020 U.S. Census data has been delayed until the end of September.
Their direction followed board members’ expression of continuing concerns over the Single-Member Districts voting system. (See the related article in this issue.)
On April 20, Commissioner Christian Ziegler reminded his colleagues that when they undertook redistricting in the fall of 2019, “I made it very clear that I would like to have a deeper conversation [regarding] how these districts look and how they’re made up.”
For example, he said, “Siesta Key is split up. Does that make sense?”
During the 2019 initiative, the map the board members adopted divided the barrier island between Ziegler’s District 2 and Commissioner Alan Maio’s District 4.
Ziegler added, “It’s kind of difficult to explain” why the 2019 districts were configured to appear the way they do.
Ziegler also took the opportunity on April 20 to criticize the Biden Administration for postponing the release of the 2020 Census numbers until September. “I think that compiling the Census is a lot more difficult than just releasing the Census,” Ziegler said.
On Feb. 12, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that it would deliver the redistricting data to all states by Sept. 30. “COVID-19-related delays and prioritizing the delivery of apportionment results delayed the Census Bureau’s original plan to deliver the redistricting data to the states by March 31, 2021,” a Census Bureau statement said.
The delay, Ziegler added on April 20, “causes a little bit of confusion or chaos for state and local governments.” The Florida Legislature likely will have to conduct a special session late next year to undertake the various redistricting initiatives it is required to pursue, Ziegler pointed out.
Perhaps the commissioners should ask staff to look into the redistricting issues and report back to the board, he added.
“I am so glad you brought that up,” Commissioner Michael Moran told Ziegler.
Then Moran pointed out that, according to state law, the board in 2019 was able to handle its redistricting initiative on the basis of Census data “and/or any other good data you get from somewhere else.”
He added, “Sarasota County is not going to be held hostage to some federal slowdown. … We went out and got incredibly detailed data [in 2019].”
If his memory was correct, Moran said, the consultants the county used “were looking at utility bills and very, very specific stuff. … Federal Census or not, we can go forward in this community …”
He also noted the “technology that’s out there” to assist with the process.
However, County Attorney Elbrecht responded, this year, the commission will be dealing with provisions of the Florida Constitution, which say that counties must use data produced by the Census. “We’re in a different position now than we were in 2019, when we had the availability to look at different data.”
“Are you saying we can only use Census data?” Moran asked Elbrecht.
“This is a constitutional provision,” Elbrecht responded. Every county has to use Census data, he added. To his knowledge, no other data can be utilized during redistricting efforts after the latest Census numbers have been released, Elbrecht pointed out.
“Well, we need a hard answer on that,” Moran told him.
“I’ll certainly be glad to look into that further,” Elbrecht said, “and give a definitive answer on that.”
Then Commissioner Nancy Detert — who proposed the 2019 redistricting because of the passage of the Single-Member Districts Sarasota County Charter amendment — told Elbrecht that it is her understanding that local government bodies have to review the population counts for their districts on the basis of the new Census figures, but those boards are not required to redraw district lines if the population is spread evenly enough among the districts.
In 2019, Detert pointed out that each commissioner would be elected by voters in that commissioner’s district in 2020, thanks to the November 2018 passage of the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment. As a result, she said at the time, it was imperative to ensure that each of the five districts had a population count as close as possible to the other four.
On April 20, Elbrecht concurred with Detert’s observation that redistricting does not necessarily have to take place after the review of the Census figures.
“Since we just did it,” Detert responded, “our numbers are probably going to be more accurate than [those of] the Census …”
Then Detert said, “The thing that’s stuck in my craw is all the public yelling and screaming and sign waving [in 2019], saying, ‘Wait for the more accurate Census numbers.’ I don’t think anybody in America today thinks that the Census numbers are going to be super accurate.”
Not only did the novel coronavirus pandemic disrupt the counts, she pointed out, but an array of weather events, including fires and floods, destroyed entire communities in various parts of the country. “How are you supposed to count all those people” when their towns are gone, she asked.
Chair Alan Maio finally told Elbrecht that the Office of the County Attorney had board consensus for the research to be conducted into what can and cannot legally be done in terms of redistricting, after the Census data has been made available.