On unanimous vote, County Commission agrees it should redraw district maps this year

Commissioners again talk about Single-Member District Charter amendment that was approved in November 2018

These are the 2011 and 2018 district population counts staff research produced for the County Commission. Image courtesy Sarasota County

It took two attempts at a motion, but the Sarasota County commissioners finally voted 4-0 on May 22 to redraw the county’s five district boundaries before the end of the year.

Commissioner Nancy Detert, who originally raised the issue in late February, stressed that the board members themselves, not a consultant, should use the best available data in deciding where the boundaries should be.

Commissioner Alan Maio first proposed a motion calling for a consultant to provide the board proposed maps, along with what Maio indicated earlier would be “legally sufficient” population data. However, Detert suggested that staff members and the public could provide maps to the commissioners, who should handle the work themselves in a public setting that most likely would be televised, as she put it.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler was not present for the May 22 discussion; he announced the previous day that he had a commitment to attend a morning function with one of his daughters.

Chair Charles Hines did point to the necessity of completing the redistricting by the end of this year, as stated in the applicable Florida law. “We’re on a timeline here,” he said. “We can’t wait until July or August to have a consultant back in front of us.”

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis responded that he felt he would be able to speed up the process by handling the contract, without having to come back to the commission. On May 7, he told the board that staff research indicated the services of a consulting firm would cost between $30,000 and $50,000, if company representatives worked with the board through the necessary public workshops leading up to approval of new maps.

(County procurement regulations approved in 2013 gave the county administrator authority to spend up to $100,000 without board approval.)

What he and County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht have talked about, Lewis added on May 22, “is getting you all the best available data to do what you need to do.”

Detert explained — as she had on May 7, during the previous discussion of the issue — that she had called for redistricting “because of the fact that the voters voted in Single-Member Districts.” She was referring to a county Charter amendment approved in November 2018 that restricts each voter to casting a ballot just for a County Commission candidate who lives in the same district as the voter.

These are the results of the Nov. 6, 2018 vote on the Single-Member District Charter amendment. Image courtesy Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office

“We are elected countywide,” Detert pointed out of the method through which all the current board members gained their seats.

“I genuinely hope that the people who voted for Single-Member Districts realize that they cannot vote ever again [for as many as three commissioners in one election],” Maio said.

Before Nov. 6, 2018, Detert continued, voters countywide could cast ballots for every commission seat that was up for election, so it did not matter if the five districts were out of balance in terms of population. “Now it does make … a big difference. So it behooves us to balance the districts, I felt.”

“The public has chosen a new system to operate under,” Hines pointed out. “Why would they want to operate under the old districts? … Why do we wait till basically 2022 to implement the new system that the public has voted on. There’s always an election going on.”

Debating the Single-Member District issue

In advocating for redistricting this year, Detert continued, “I have to ask myself, Do we want to be dictated [to] by protestors and political activists and lawsuits, or do we want to go by the laws that we were sworn to uphold? … I don’t see who in this county of sensible people would object to us making all five districts as equal as we could possibly get.”

In earlier discussions, commissioners — including Detert —made remarks indicating their objection to the citizen petition initiative, led by the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE), to get the Single-Member District Charter amendment on the Nov. 6, 2018 ballot.

SAFE President Kindra Muntz announces the success of the Charter amendment petition drive during a June 22, 2018 press conference at the Terrace Building, where the Supervisor of Elections Office is located in Sarasota. Image courtesy of SAFE

In a May 22 telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader, Kindra Muntz of Venice, president of SAFE, referenced comments Detert made on May 22 and Detert’s motion calling for the board members to redraw the districts before the end of 2019.

“It does seem like the elected officials want to chose their voters instead of the voters choosing their elected officials,” Muntz said. “It’s not right. … I think that was so evident in that meeting.”

Detert and Commissioner Michael Moran both will be up for re-election in 2020, and neither has indicated a disinclination to see a second term. Hines will have to step down from the board because of term limits, so his seat also will be up for election.

Muntz pointed to Maio’s effort to ensure an independent consultant handled the drawing of the new boundaries. If the commission is intent on redistricting, Muntz told the News Leader, an outside consultant relying just on population studies should handle the redrawing of the maps, instead of the commissioners creating new lines on the basis of what Muntz characterized as “a voter registration study.”

“Let that independent map be the one that we see,” she added.

Further, Muntz said she is encouraging “all concerned voters” to visit the county website, www.scgov.net, and take a look at the comments speakers made about redistricting during the Open to the Public period, as well as the comments the commissioners made. Then the voters can decide for themselves, Muntz said, whether it is indeed appropriate for the board to pursue redistricting this year.

(This is the link to the video of the morning session, when redistricting was discussed. The Open to the Public period is the first item on the agenda. The redistricting item is No. 5.)

These are the times on the video of the May 22 County Commission meeting when comments and discussion of the redistricting issue may be found. News Leader image

On the opposite side of the issue from Muntz, Jack Brill, acting chair of the Sarasota County Republican Party, told the commissioners during Open to the Public comments on May 22 that redistricting is necessary, because the districts approved in June 2011 —following the 2010 Census — have grown out of balance. “A variation of even several percent can skew the outcome of an election,” he added.

The underlying research

On May 7, the commissioners directed County Administrator Lewis to use a feature of a software system already available to staff — Esri — to determine the best possible estimate of the population in each district.

A May 15 memo to the board, provided the following figures:

  • District 1 — 81,106.
  • District 2 — 79,915.
  • District 3 — 87,130.
  • District 4 — 80,685.
  • District 5 — 87,525.

“I think that the redistricting at this point is appropriate,” Commissioner Maio said on May 22.

He and other board members also alluded to information provided in a May 7 memo to them from Lewis and Elbrecht.

Commissioner Moran pointed to one paragraph that said, “Mid-decade redistricting is legally permissible. Census data is generally considered the best source of data, but there is no federal or state requirement to use it, and its accuracy decreases over time. The data used should be reliable and the best source of data available at the time.”

This is the section of the Florida Statutes that explains how county commissions must handle redistricting. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Moran also noted that Section 124.01(3) of the Florida Statutes says, “The board of county commissioners shall from time to time, fix the boundaries of the … districts so as to keep them as nearly equal in proportion to population as possible …” Moran emphasized the word “shall.”

Other factors for consideration

Referencing public comments that Susette Bryan, an officer of SAFE, made that morning, Commissioner Maio said he disagreed with her view that the board members should keep each city in one district, instead of splitting them, as the current districts do. “I think the cities get some really broad representation [if they are divided into more than one district].”

Maio noted that, if he recalled the current boundaries correctly, North Port has two commissioners, Venice has three and Sarasota has three.

Maio also questioned County Attorney Elbrecht about comments and emails the board members had received that cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision that makes it necessary for no greater variation than 10% from the population of the largest district to that of the smallest.

County Attorney ‘Rick’ Elbrecht. News Leader image

The 10% analysis, Elbrecht explained, is one “that courts use generally when there’s a legal challenge to a redistricting plan”; it regards the One Person/One Vote Rule. However, Elbrecht continued, a court could be persuaded by evidence in a particular case that variations greater than 10% are constitutional.

The 10% figure, Elbrecht added, is “not something that’s contained in the [Florida] Statute [on redistricting by county commissions].”

“One thing that we will need to be aware of,” Detert pointed out, is “you have to keep ‘communities of interest’ together … and ‘communities of interest’ are ethnic, could be coastal, could be [agricultural] people, could be the cities.”

“We have it all in Sarasota,” she said, adding, for example, “The ag people don’t feel they should be in with downtown Sarasota.”

As the board members debated how to proceed, Maio said, “I don’t see any problem with hiring a consultant … somebody’s who’s proficient in this type of thing, has a background in this type of thing,” and perhaps has defended such work in court.” The consultant could review and refine the population figures staff had produced, he added.

Finally, Maio made the first motion, calling for the board to direct County Administrator Lewis to hire a consultant to review the numbers staff had produced for the districts, to refine those numbers and then to bring back to the board an assessment of new district boundaries and population counts “that are in a legally sufficient manner.”

Hines seconded the motion for discussion.

Detert protested, saying she wanted the county to hire a consultant who “would strictly be a data collection person …”

After further discussion, Maio withdrew his motion, and Detert offered hers.

Hines said he felt that if the board members had a map of the county with the population data listed by precinct, then they would be able to draw the new boundaries. “We know the geography of the county to try to put [the districts] together.”