Newtown residents decry potential for disenfranchisement, as map drawn by former Sarasota GOP Chair Waechter would prevent them from voting in 2020 election
Thirty-two speakers took turns at the podium on Oct. 30 to tell the Sarasota County Commission that its effort to redraw district boundaries before the end of the year is so flawed on so many levels that the board should put a halt to it.
A number of speakers stressed that one map — which the board members asked their consultant to add into the mix last month, for potential consideration — would disenfranchise residents of Newtown, the historically African American community in the city of Sarasota. That map, speakers said, would prevent Newtown citizens from voting in the 2020 County Commission election for the District 1 seat. It would move Newtown into District 2.
Others emphasized that that map was drawn by former Sarasota GOP Chair Robert Waechter — a man, they pointed out, who pleaded guilty in 2013 to impersonating a fellow Republican in an effort to defame her as she contemplated a campaign for County Commission.
On one occasion, Commissioner Nancy Detert’s questioning of an African American speaker who criticized the redistricting process drew a rebuke from Chair Charles Hines, who said she was violating the code of decorum he had sought to enforce from the outset of the meeting.
Later, Detert told state Rep. Wengay “Newt” Newton, who represents State House District 70 — which includes Newtown — “It’s no deliberate choice to try to restrict people” from voting, referring to the potential Newtown situation.
Yet, even the alarm raised by a county resident they directed on Oct. 7 to work with their consultant — Kurt Spitzer of Tallahassee — to correct significant flaws remaining in Spitzer’s data failed to deter the majority of board members from continuing on the track Detert set before them in late February.
In fact, when that county resident, R.N. Collins, invited board questions that would extend his time at the podium beyond the 3 minutes accorded each speaker, Hines found that none of his colleagues cared to give Collins extra time.
The final speaker on Oct. 7, Kafi Benz, president of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), drew attention to that reluctance of the commissioners, telling the board members she was “very disappointed that [they] didn’t have any curiosity about what Mr. Collins had to say ….”
After almost three-and-a-half hours of exchanges, on a 3-2 vote, the commissioners agreed to advertise two proposed maps with new district lines for a public hearing on Nov. 19.
One of those maps was a revision of the version Waechter submitted to county staff prior to the Oct. 7 discussion.
The second map would move the county’s largest precinct, which is dominated by Republican voters, into District 1.
In spite of the fact that Detert has insisted that the redistricting process was not planned to protect her or Commissioner Michael Moran — both of whom are up for re-election in 2020 — speakers also had made their case that the relocation of Precinct 233 practically would ensure a second term for Moran. Its inclusion would shift District 1 from dominance by registered Democrats.
Yet, Moran did not push for that alternative map — 2.A-1. Instead, he touted the merits of the revised Waechter map.
He said Jono Miller of Sarasota, retired director of the Environmental Studies Program at New College, was the one who proposed the original version of what became Map 4.1. “He is a Democrat,” Moran continued of Miller. “Some would argue that he is an activist Democrat. I’m saying that as a compliment. … I’ve always found him incredibly thoughtful, respectful and passionate about what he does.”
Miller suggested a map with a downtown Sarasota district; an “out east district,” as Moran put it; a mid-county district; a Venice district; and a North Port district. “I think it’s conceptually strong,” Moran added of Map 4.1.
Before Detert made the motion to advertise Maps 2.A-1 and 4.1 for the Nov. 19 special meeting, she pointed out, “I was very disheartened by a lot of the public input. It was accusatory; it was, in some cases, vicious.” In her 40 years of county residency, she continued, “I’ve never seen our citizens behave like this before. … There’s a lot of ignorance about the process and the law, why we have to do what we do.”
Detert and all the commissioners except Christian Ziegler have argued that the voters’ passage of the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment in November 2018 forced the redistricting process this year — as allowed by state law — to ensure that each commissioner would represent nearly the same number of constituents. Under the guidelines of that Charter amendment, a voter will be able to cast a ballot just for a candidate who lives in the same district as the voter.
Advocates for the amendment said it would provide better representation for county residents and make it easier for candidates to afford campaigns, as the candidates no longer would have to contend with countywide races.
If supporters of the Single-Member Districts amendments wanted to wait until after the 2020 Census results to implement the new voting system, Detert said, then “it would be easy” for the board members also to wait until 2021 to redraw the district lines.
Hines and Ziegler cast the “No” votes on Oct. 30. Ziegler has argued consistently that the board should await the 2020 U.S. Census results to redraw the district lines.
“I feel like this entire process has been rushed,” he said at one point on Oct. 30. “I’d prefer to have an actual, legitimate community conversation about which areas and which portions of the county … need to be together are similar or need to be together.”
He also voiced concern about the long history of court rulings that have struck down efforts to impede African Americans from voting.
Ziegler conceded that he is not a lawyer; nonetheless, he said, “When you start looking at … voting and disenfranchisement … they have specific carve-outs for minorities.”
Hines, who announced his decision after the other votes were cast, explained that he could not support the Waechter map, citing its impact on Newtown. Additionally, Hines said, that map’s population counts are not as equally divided among the districts as those of the other maps the board had to consider.
One other point made before the vote — which Commissioner Alan Maio raised — was that, given the implementation of Single-Member Districts, every four years, people will be voting for one commissioner. The county’s Communications Department staff will need to educate voters about that, he added.
Hines offered an example: Residents of Palmer Ranch “probably have no clue that they won’t get to vote [in 2020],” based on the proposed lines in the two maps that will be considered later this month for adoption.
During the Oct. 30 special meeting, R.N. Collins, the resident with whom the commissioners had asked consultant Spitzer to work, stressed that the revised data Spitzer had produced for county staff and the board still reflected significant underestimations of Hispanic and African American voters — 30% and 20%, respectively.
“It’s easy to see that what I am saying is true,” Collins told the board members. “I’ve got the exhibits.”
The second set of maps Spitzer had created to account for errors in the initial ones “do not correct all the problems that I identified and gave to [Spitzer],” Collins added. “In some ways,” Collins continued, the new maps “are worse than the consultant’s first attempt. … These are too flawed to be useful.”
For example, the official 2018 total of Hispanic residents in the county — produced by the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR) — was more than 42,000, Collins said. Yet, the new maps reflect a count of 32,000, he continued, “which is substantially less than the 38,000” in the first set of Spitzer’s maps. “It’s impossible to draw defensible district boundaries without accurate minority population counts,” Collins told the board.
During his opening remarks on Oct. 30, Spitzer alluded only a couple of times to Collins — and never by name — when he addressed the commission. Spitzer offered no specific comments on the problems Collins had identified in an Oct. 10 email exchange with him, on which Collins had copied the commissioners.
Instead, Spitzer explained how he and his subcontractor — Richard L. Doty, research demographer and Geographic Information System (GIS) coordinator with BEBR — had revised their figures since Oct. 7. Spitzer pointed to the fact that, instead of 12.26 percentage points being the biggest deviation between the largest and smallest of the current commission districts, the deviation had grown to 13.4 percentage points.
He talked of having modified the original data after obtaining new information from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office. The county has 11,360 Census blocks — or neighborhoods — for which he and Doty had to factor housing and occupancy changes since the 2010 Census was completed, Spitzer said.
Among the speakers who zeroed in on concerns about Newtown voters, Barbara Langston, a lifelong resident of the that community, told the commissioners, “This is not the ’40s or the ’50s. … You can’t try to keep people from voting in a race [just because you do not like the way they vote].”
“For half a century, we have not had a Democratic person on this commission,” she pointed out.
Redrawing the district lines this year, Langston said, “is about voter suppression, and it is about racism.”
Edward James III, a former candidate for Florida House who described himself as a fourth-generation Sarasotan, opened his remarks with a quote from 1970s African American activist Angela Davis: “I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”
James stressed that if the board adopted Map 4.1, it would be “sliding [Newtown] into another district,” which would prevent the approximately 10,000 voters in that community from participating in the 2020 election for the District 1 seat.
“In our community,” James continued, “historical voter disenfranchisement isn’t theoretical. It lives in the not-too-distant memories of our friends, our families and our neighbors …”
Although state law gives the County Commission the power to redraw district lines this year, James said, “That authority does notpermit returning to the … disenfranchising policies of our past.”
“Perhaps you couldn’t care less about the will of the people,” James told the board members. However, he said, “If you care about protecting yourselves against a federal lawsuit and if you care about protecting our taxpayer dollars, I highly encourage you to listen to these folks behind me [wearing T-shirts that said ‘Rigged’].”
After applause rang out in the Chambers, Chair Hines admonished the audience members. “Let’s be bigger than what we see coming out of Washington,” he added, prompting groans among the crowd.
“I admire your passion,” Detert told James before noting that he had accused the commissioners of “We don’t care about this; we don’t care about that.”
“I said ‘perhaps,’” James replied.
“Perhaps?” Detert said. “Oh, well, now I’m fine with it.”
“Did you care about your community enough to draw a map to protect your community?” Detert continued. “We went overboard to ask people to submit a map, and I didn’t see one from you.”
As James started to respond, she quickly added, ‘Thanks.”
“Will you give me an opportunity to respond?” James asked.
Then Hines said, “No. I think the question was out of order,” adding that he had asked the speakers to refrain from personal attacks on the board members.
Hines then added, “Commissioner Detert, I think that was a little over and above … when you asked that question.”
Hines thanked James and called the next speaker.
Tom Matrullo, who lives in Precinct 233, in the eastern part of the county, noted that that precinct would be part of District 2 in every map except Alternative 1-A, which Spitzer updated only to even out what Spitzer had testified was an even greater discrepancy in population counts he and subcontractor Doty had determined since the board last discussed the issues on Oct. 7.
Precinct 233 has more registered Republicans — 3,951 — and more voters — 8,225 — than any other district in the county, Matrullo added. Thus, “If one wanted to help a Republican candidate win District 1 in 2020, moving Precinct 233 would be the strongest choice.”
Representing the nonprofit Control Growth Now, Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck stressed to the commissioners, “You don’t need this … There’s no lawsuit that’s going to come if you don’t redistrict.” He urged them to wait until after the 2020 Census and “not drag this community through strife and hell …”
The inclusion of Waechter’s map in the directions to Spitzer on Oct. 7, Lobeck continued, was what had compelled him to appear at the podium on Oct. 30. “I knew from the beginning it was Bob Waechter,” Lobeck added of the “Smith” map. Waechter “did this in 2011,” Lobeck said. “He drew your current districts. [Waechter told The Sarasota News Leader last month that he was involved in that process.]
“He’s the henchman for the developer cabal that pulls the strings behind the scenes in selecting candidates and bankrolling them,” Lobeck added of Waechter. “You know that’s true.”
Waechter’s map, Lobeck continued, carves out the area in District 1 where 2016 Republican candidate Frank DiCicco lives, Lobeck said. “For getting in at the last minute, [DiCicco] gave you a run for the money,” Lobeck told Commissioner Moran, who beat DiCicco in the Republican Primary that year for the District 1 seat.
(Moran announced his entry into the race on Jan. 13, 2015, Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections records show, while DiCicco filed for the seat on May 19, 2016. Moran won the August primary with 60.94% of the vote, the Supervisor of Elections Office records show.)
“[Map] 4.1 is the Waechter map,” Lobeck added. “It is the cabal map.” If that map gets advanced, Lobeck said, “That’s bipartisan corruption.”
Kindra Muntz, president of Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE), said it appeared Waechter had been involved in drawing more than one of the proposed maps. “All of [those] seem to guarantee your re-election,” she told Commissioner Moran. “[Developers] contributed thousands of dollars to [your 2016 campaign] to reap millions in return,” Muntz. “You have been a reliable vote for them all along.”
Another speaker, Jeffrey Scott, emphasized that the U.S. Census Bureau “is the leading authority on providing quality data about [U.S.] citizens and their geography. … [The Bureau is] the nation’s scientific think tank whose focus is data.”
He told the commissioners, “Public confidence in our County Commission is critical and hinges upon their ability to remain credible.” Yet, he said, by pursuing redistricting this year through assistant of a consultant, the commissioners have “created their own quagmire of suspicion, mistrust and perhaps secrecy …”
Over the course of the discussion and the first portion of the public comments, Hines repeatedly asked the audience members to refrain from applause and other outbursts. After Langston concluded her remarks, and more applause erupted, Hines told the audience, “I’m going to say it again. Please stop.”
If necessary, he said, he could make everyone who had signed a card wait in the lobby of the Administration Center until he or she was called to testify. “Neverhad to do that,” he stressed.
Finally, the audience members began to refrain from collective reactions to comments.
Questioning the consultant
Early on during the discussion with consultant Spitzer, Detert pointed out of the Waechter map: “It was the worst of all maps when it came to the numbers … There was no way we could use that as a template; configuration, maybe.”
Spitzer reminded her, “We were instructed to come back to see if that could work.”
In three of the five districts, he continued, the numbers were “kind of close.” Thus, he continued, he created Map 4.1, which included some adjustments to the boundaries “to try to get that map into an acceptable format if you were otherwise interested in discussing [it].”
“I’m not interested,” Detert told him.
“I’m not either,” Hines told Spitzer. “But you did what we asked you to do.”
Then Commissioner Ziegler questioned Spitzer about the Waechter map, after pointing out that it appeared to move Newtown — the city of Sarasota’s historically African American neighborhood — from District 1 to District 2.
“In your professional opinion,” Ziegler asked Spitzer, “which one of these maps is the most legally defensible?”
Ziegler added that the news media already was talking about the potential of “lawsuits and challenges.”
“Well, I think Alternative 4 is the least defensible,” Spitzer replied. “I think that the second iteration of [Maps] 2 or 3 … are defensible. … But they’re all defensible.”
“I hate to even refer to Alternative 4,” Detert interjected. “It was a controversial map.” She proposed eliminating it from the discussion altogether.
Ziegler responded that Map 4.1 is a variation of Map 4.
Finally, Detert made a motion to “get rid of Alternative 4.”
Commissioner Moran seconded the motion.
The motion passed unanimously.