On split vote, County Commission approves revised Waechter map with new district lines, in spite of threats of legal recourse

Newtown residents decry action, which will prevent them from voting in 2020 election for District 1 seat

These are the Sarasota County commissioners and their districts. Image from the county website

During a Nov. 19 special meeting, the Sarasota County Commission had three choices, as several of the 36 speakers who addressed the board that morning pointed out.

The commission could adopt proposed Map 2.A-1 with revised district lines proposed by a consultant the county hired in June. (Commissioner Christian Ziegler called it “the better of two evils.”) The board could adopt a revised version of a map originally submitted to the board under a fake name by a person who pleaded guilty several years ago for trying to besmirch the reputation of a fellow Siesta Key resident preparing for a run for the County Commission; or it could choose to wait until after the 2020 Census results have been released to draw new lines.

On a 3-2 vote — with Ziegler and Chair Charles Hines in the minority — the commissioners approved Map 4.1, which Siesta Key resident and former Sarasota County Republican Party Chair Robert Waechter submitted to county staff in October.

In December 2012, Waechter was arrested by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office after an investigation revealed that he had purchased a gift card and used it in the name of Lourdes Ramirez to make contributions to Democratic candidates. Ramirez, also a Republican, has contended that reports of those contributions resulted in her victimization during her 2014 campaign for the District 4 County Commission seat. She lost the Republican Primary to Alan Maio, who ended up winning the seat during the General Election.

The Waechter map was the one speakers decried the most during a special meeting on Oct. 30 and again on Nov. 19, because it would prevent residents of the historically African American community of Newtown from voting in the 2020 election for the District 1 seat. Commissioner Michael Moran won that seat in 2016.

Newtown was moved into District 2 in Map 4.1.

This is Alternative Map 4.1, which is based on a map submitted to the county by former Sarasota County GOP Chair Robert Waechter. Image courtesy Sarasota County

That map also splits Siesta Key into two districts — 2 and 4.

This close-up of Map 4.1 shows the split of Siesta Key between Districts 2 and 4. Image courtesy Sarasota County

After about two hours and 15 minutes of public comments on Nov. 19, Moran made the motion to adopt Map 4.1. Commissioner Maio seconded it, and Commissioner Nancy Detert also supported it.

Yet, Commissioner Ziegler joined several members of the public in talking about the expectation that adoption of Map 4.1 will result in a legal challenge.

He had been told by “numerous people,” he said, that the Sarasota County Democratic Party, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) would pursue legal action against the county if the board adopted Map 4.1 “I want to avoid that.”

Since they formally began the redistricting process in late May, commissioners have stressed that the effort was necessitated by the passage in November 2018 of the Single-Member Districts amendment to the Sarasota County Charter. Instead of commissioners being elected countywide, starting in 2020, only voters who live in a district with an open seat will be able to elect a candidate for that seat.

Yet, among the speakers on Nov. 19, Preston DeVilbus, a retired Sarasota County judge, told the board members, “I am familiar with all the current law and the case law. … My interpretation: You aredoing your job if you make a determination that you are going to redistrict when you have the appropriate numbers that you can rely on. … You should base [new district lines] on Census numbers.”

Retired County Judge Preston DeVilbus addresses the commission on Nov. 19. News Leader image

DeVilbus added, “There’s no Circuit Court judge nor federal judge who would hold it against you until you get the numbers in.”

Nonetheless, Moran emphasized the Single-Member Districts amendment again as he began a statement explaining his motion.

Referring to accusations that Newtown voters would be unable to participate in the 2020 election with the approval of Map 4.1, Moran pointed out, “It’s not just Newtown. Many other territories were impacted by Single-Member Districts, [which] limits voters’ ability to participate.”

He then showed his the audience a graphic with the district lines for Map 4.1.

“A very small portion” of the shaded area in the upper left corner, Moran said, represented Newtown. During the 2020 election, he continued, about 40% of the county population — “just shy of 167,000” — will be unable to vote. During the 2022 election, Moran said, that number “will be in excess of 250,000 people,” or about 60% of the approximately 420,000 county residents.

Moran also pushed back against criticism that the map was submitted by Waechter under the pseudonym of Adam Smith. Moran maintained that the basis for Map 4.1 was a proposal presented to the board in early September by Jono Miller of Sarasota, whom Moran characterized as “a respectable Democrat activist” to whom Moran said he had had “limited exposure.”

However, on his Facebook page this week, Miller expressed dismay at the comments. Miller wrote, “I’ve grown tired of reading that my ‘map’ (I submitted two) is similar to the Adam Smith (Waechter) Map. …Honestly — I can’t see how either of my maps can be viewed as either inspiration for or basis of the Adam Smith map.”

These are the two maps Jono Miller submitted to the County Commission in early September, along with comments. Image courtesy Sarasota County
Commissioner Michael Moran showed the audience this graphic on Oct. 30, comparing one Jono Miller map (left) with the original map from Robert Waechter. News Leader image

During his Nov. 19 remarks, Moran maintained that the Miller map divided the county into districts Moran called “Downtown Sarasota,” “Out East” and mid-county, plus a district dominated by the city of Venice and a district dominated by the city of North Port. However, because of the Single-Member Districts amendment, Moran said, the commissioners wanted to ensure that more than one board member would represent each of the county’s municipalities. Therefore, they asked their consultant, Kurt Spitzer of Tallahassee, to take that into consideration in revising “the Smith map” from Waechter, as Spitzer evened out the population as much as possible among the five districts.

The Miller map was submitted before county staff conducted any of the outreach meetings held in each district, Moran added. “It was thoughtful and in the interest of all Sarasota County residents.”

Nonetheless, critics — including many of the Nov. 19 speakers — accused Waechter of creating his map in an effort to enable Moran and Detert both would be re-elected in 2020. Because Newtown voters traditionally have represented a Democratic block, shifting them into District 2 has been cited as a significant means of aiding Moran’s re-election chances.

Trevor Harvey, president of the Sarasota County NAACP Chapter, told the board members on Nov. 19, “Today, you will potentially make the worst mistake at this table, if you vote on the proposed … Waechter map.” Newtown accounts for 15% of the voting base in District 1, Harvey said; in District 2, that number will drop to 3%.

The only reason for pursuing redistricting, he continued, “is to shift the power to benefit [yourselves]. How can you in good conscience sleep in peace at night?”

This is a closeup of Newtown in Map 4.1. which the County Commission did adopt this week. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Pastor Ruby Robinson, a District 1 resident, told the commissioners, “We’re asking you all to hear our cry. Hear the cry of our heart. Feel what we feel. … Our vote is our voice.”

She had brought a sign to the meeting, she added, which described the potential impact of board action on Newtown as “high-class slavery.”

Critics also have pointed out that the configuration of county districts approved in June 2011, after the 2010 Census, kept less of Venice and more of North Port in District 3. With North Port Mayor Christopher Hanks among three candidates already having filed for the District 3 race, and Detert living in Venice, questions had arisen about her ability to win a second term on the commission.

In her comments on Moran’s Nov. 19 motion, Detert said, “The voters voted for Single-Member Districts. I don’t think they understood some of the ramifications. This process is one of the ramifications”: trying to balance the population in each district before the 2020 election.

Moreover, Detert continued, she agreed with one speaker that day who had said that a commissioner needs to know his or her constituents.

Map 4.1 puts the city of Venice in District 3, Detert noted, and it keeps Newtown in one district, which “makes sense to me, even if they have to wait to vote as a block later on.”

As Moran began reading his statement after making his motion, Chair Hines interrupted him, because people who had filled the Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota stood up to begin leaving.

Moran said he would wait, though Hines had asked that people leave quietly.

Then, looking out at the Chambers, Detert said, “We listened to you for three hours and you don’t want to listen to us?”

Leader of SAFE responds to the vote

Kindra Muntz, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Districts (SAFE) — which won enough voter signatures to put the proposed Single-Member District amendment on the Nov. 6, 2018 ballot — offered the following statement to The Sarasota News Leaderabout the Nov. 19 decision:

Kindra Muntz. File photo

“At today’s Public Hearing of the Sarasota County Commission on the proposed 2019 redistricting, despite all our efforts and those of so many others to encourage the County Commissioners to abandon their flawed efforts to redistrict the county this year, the Commissioners passed and will proceed with steps toward redistricting the county using Map 4.1-the one that both gerrymanders District 1 to ensure the re-election of Commissioner Moran, including carving out a potentially viable Republican opponent of his, and does the most damage to Newtown voters by moving them out of District 1 to District 2, thus disenfranchising them from voting (and disenfranchising Fredd Atkins from running for County Commission) in 2020. [A former Sarasota mayor and city commissioner, Atkins filed earlier this year to run as a Democratic challenger to Moran, who has yet to file for re-election.]
“However,” Muntz continued in her statement, “we should be spurred on, and not deterred.
“In addition to whatever lawsuit(s) may result, it is up to all of us now to reach out to all voters and potential voters, and get everyone
• “registered to vote
• “paying attention and voting in all elections
• “helping others register to vote

“WE the PEOPLE should choose our elected officials, not have elected officials choose their voters,” she emphasized.
“We must encourage principled people to run for office.
“We can’t give up.
“We can’t turn back.
“Our time is now,” she wrote.

First, a failed motion

Prior to Moran’s making his motion, Commissioner Ziegler failed in an attempt to win approval of the other proposed map, dubbed 2.A-1.

“My job,” he said, “more importantly than anything else, is to be a good steward of Sarasota County.”

He again voiced his view that redistricting should be postponed until after the 2020 Census data becomes available. The commission’s initiative, he pointed out, “was sold [as] ‘Let’s even out the population.” Yet, “I think just overall this has really kind of split the community.”

Nonetheless, he said, he wanted to try to broker a compromise.

Map 2.1-1, he continued, is “more legally defensible and passes muster better.”

This is Map 2.A-1. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“The public’s been involved throughout this whole process,” Ziegler said, noting that the original version of that map from consultant Spitzer was shown to the public during the five outreach sessions. Engaging the public was the good part of the endeavor, he added. “The bad is pretty much everything else.”

In regard to Alternative 4.1, Ziegler continued, “The genesis of how it was drafted — pretty crazy, and I know it affects a specific community … Map 4 is a focus on completely redrawing the whole county, based on geography. … We haven’t had those discussions … at all.”
For example, he pointed out, should Longboat Key be in the same district as Siesta Key? Should the City of Venice be in the same district as Englewood?

Ziegler also asked Spitzer whether it was accurate to say that when Census figures are released, “those are legally stamped as official numbers?”

“Yes,” Spitzer replied.

Ziegler then asked County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht what options the board would have if the commission adopted a map that day and a judge ruled it illegal.

“We’d have to redistrict after the Census, according to the Constitution,” Elbrecht replied.

Could a judge redraw the district lines, Ziegler asked.

That probably would be an option available to the court, Elbrecht said.

Defenses and questions

Commissioner Nancy Detert looks out over the audience in chambers on Aug. 29, 2018. File photo

“We’re being accused of being a bunch of politicians up here,” Detert said during the board’s discussion after the public comments ended. “What I didn’t like about Map 2 is it splits the Newtown community in half.”

Referring to speakers who had accused her “of gerrymandering a map for my next election,” she added, “I was elected without opposition, so I don’t feel I have to gerrymander a map to keep a County Commission seat.” She pointed out that she has been serving the same district since she first was elected to public office — on the Sarasota County School Board — and she continued to serve those constituents when she was a member of the Florida House and the Florida Senate.

“I’ve done redistricting before,” Detert said. “I know the laws. Compact districts, contiguous districts and [keeping] communities of interest” together are the primary goals, she added.

His goal throughout the process over the past several months, Chair Hines said, was “to try to equalize the numbers” of people in each of the five districts, “to follow the Equal Protection Clause [of the U.S. Constitution] and ensure one person/one vote.”

Yet, on Nov. 19, R.N. Collins — who had reported finding more than 1,000 “serious flaws” with Spitzer’s original data — continued to underscore his concerns about the validity of the numbers on which Spitzer had based the two proposed maps, even after Spitzer told the board last month that he and his subcontractor had updated their figures.

“I don’t think that having a new map will make your districts any more balanced,” Collins said on Nov. 19.

When Hines asked Spitzer whether he had looked at Collins’ latest data, Spitzer said. “Unfortunately, I have not had a chance [to do that].” He had been copied on email exchanges between Collins and Richard Doty of the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR) the previous evening, Spitzer added. (Doty, BEBR’s demographic researcher, worked as Spitzer’s subcontractor on the project, Spitzer has explained.) “But I didn’t see the underlying documents,” Spitzer added.

Alluding to Collins’ detailed analysis of the materials Spitzer had submitted to county staff, Commissioner Ziegler said at one point that he meant no offense to Spitzer, but “I think the data is questionable right now.”

Spitzer said of the redistricting effort, “In my mind, there’s a hierarchy of criteria that you use …” First, Spitzer continued, the goal is to try to achieve “nearly equal [numbers] in population as is possible” in the districts.

Second, he pointed out, the effort should try to preserve minority voting strength, if possible.

Kurt Spitzer addresses the commission on Oct. 7. File image

Other criteria less critical than those, Spitzer said, involve following “significant natural and manmade boundaries so voting districts are easy for people to understand.”

Additionally, he said, “You try to not split cities … and this was a matter of some debate amongst the County Commission.”

“So in this entire process,” Ziegler responded, “was there ever an in-depth conversation” about which areas or which cities “should be incorporated into which districts?”

“No,” Spitzer replied.

Detert then sought to cast aspersion on the numbers produced by the decennial Census. For example, she said, only about 72% of the population tends to return the questionnaires, based on reports she has seen. The National Conference of State Legislatures, she continued, is working on means to ensure the numbers are as accurate as possible.

Detert also noted that she had read information on legislative websites indicating that Census numbers are hard to determine for “racial and ethnic minorities,” non-English-speaking people, undocumented immigrants, the poor, residents of rural areas “and those who distrust government. We’ve got both sides of the aisle covered.”

At some point, Detert noted, the federal government just declares the numbers are official.

Then she asked Spitzer if he could say that “counting the entire United States of America would be more accurate than counting the citizens of Sarasota County,” eliciting laughter among the audience members.

“I wouldn’t be qualified to answer that,” Spitzer told her.

However, he said, “The Census numbers are presumed to be accurate. … [Yet,] if someone wanted to, they’re going to find inaccuracies or anomalies in individual blocks,” he added, referring to the counts for individual neighborhoods.

Sarasota County has more than 11,000 blocks, he pointed out.

A unified voice

During his comments to the commissioners on Nov. 19, retired Judge DeVilbus said, “This has the appearance of racism and you can solve it. You don’t have to take action.”

Delores McFarland takes her turn at the podium. News Leader image

Delores McFarland, president of the newly chartered Sarasota Democratic Black Caucus, urged the board, “Halt this illegal, blatant ploy to dilute the black vote.”

She added, “Commissioners, I understand the ‘R’ word can be a provocative word. But as a child of the Civil Rights movement who grew up in the South, I am not calling you racist.” Instead, she pointed out, “The implication of this move is racist.”

Jeff Murphy told the board members, “There are more causes besides redistricting that we need in North Sarasota.” Adding that Newtown residents for years had been seeking county support to complete much-needed improvements on Myrtle Street, he continued, “You don’t have the money for us. Now you want to redistrict us. … What is the problem that you have with North Sarasota? … Now you don’t want us to vote!”

“The issue that concerns me is polarization,” former Sarasota City Commissioner Susan Chapman said. “I think we need to build more trust in government and less polarization in order to do problem solving in the community.”

She supported the resolution the City Commission adopted the previous day, Chapman added, which urged the County Commission to wait until after the 2020 Census to redistrict.

(See the related article in this issue.)