Motion provides details from deposition of former county Republican Party chair Robert Waechter in contending he influenced relocation of Newtown to District 2
On April 22, U.S. District Court Judge William F. Jung of the Middle District of Florida signed an order affirming that the redistricting lawsuit filed against Sarasota County on Dec. 12, 2019 would be heard starting May 11.
“This case is scheduled for a DATE CERTAIN,” the case docket says.
After entertaining arguments about a delay because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Jung agreed during an April 10 telephonic hearing that he would reschedule the bench trial from April 27 to May 11, at the request of the Newtown plaintiffs in the class action case. Outside counsel for Sarasota County had countered that the plaintiffs simply were trying to gain more time to prepare for the trial.
Additionally, the plaintiffs have filed a motion seeking a permanent injunction that would prohibit the county from using the new County Commission district boundaries adopted on Nov. 19, 2019 for the elections this year for the Districts 1, 3 and 5 seats. The three named plaintiffs in the lawsuit — Fredd Atkins, Mary Mack and Michael White — reassert their contention that the new County Commission district boundaries were designed to “segregate voters into separate districts based on race — i.e., racial gerrymandering.”
“Plaintiffs are entitled to this [the permanent injunction] because [Sarasota County] suspiciously: (i) adopted a redistricting plan two months before the 2020 Decennial Census was to begin; (ii) rejected its own staff’s analysis that it was unnecessary to redistrict prior to the [C]ensus; (iii) instead hired a consultant to create new estimates of population that would justify an early redistricting before the Census; (iv) paid the consultant to create alternative district maps, that did not disenfranchise African-Americans, but then ultimately adopted a map anonymously submitted at the deadline by a convicted political dirty trickster, i.e., the Waechter Map, which dramatically changed existing district boundaries to carve out African-American voters and an African-American candidate from the 2020 election,” the plaintiffs’ motion says.
Robert Waechter of Siesta Key, a past chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota, submitted to the county a map, dubbed Alternative 4.1, under the pseudonym of Adam Smith.
In 2013, Waechter pleaded guilty in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court to having falsely made political contributions to Democratic candidates in 2012 races in the name of another Siesta resident, Lourdes Ramirez, who is a registered Republican.
Ramirez notified the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office in 2012 after she received a thank-you note from one of those candidates. The Sheriff’s Office was able to confirm through surveillance video and examination of Waechter’s computer that he had bought a gift card to use for the donations.
Ramirez alleged later in a civil suit against Waechter that her reputation was besmirched by his actions, which had a negative effect on her subsequent campaign in 2014 for the District 4 seat that Commissioner Alan Maio won.
Waechter admitted to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune first and then to The Sarasota News Leader that he was indeed the person who created the “Adam Smith” map. He added in an email to the News Leader that he also had worked in 2011 to create the district boundaries that were adopted after the 2010 Census data was released.
The new lines approved in November 2019 moved the African-American community of Newtown from District 1 to District 2. Opponents argued that the intent was to help Commissioner Michael Moran win re-election to the District 1 seat. Prior to the redistricting vote, former Sarasota Mayor and City Commissioner Atkins had filed to run against Moran as a Democrat.
Speakers during County Commission meetings last year also pointed out that the majority of Newtown voters traditionally support Democrats in elections. Moran, like all four of his colleagues on the County Commission, is a Republican.
The motion for the permanent injunction further notes, “Historically, African-American voters residing in District 1 had tended to vote for African-American candidates, without regard to a candidate’s party.”
The motion pointed out that in 2008, Republican Carolyn Mason, who is African-American, “won the popular vote in the primarily African-American precincts in District 1. … In 2016, Plaintiff Atkins, an African-American Democrat, won the popular vote in District 1, including the precincts containing primarily African-American voters.”
However, because the 2016 election was countywide, the motion said, Moran won the District 1 seat.
Voters in November 2018 approved a Single-Member Districts Sarasota County Charter amendment, which is in effect for the 2020 election. That amendment says voters may cast ballots only for County Commission candidates who live in the same districts in which the voters live. As a result, voters in Districts 2 and 4 will not be able to cast ballots for candidates this year; those seats will not be up for election again until 2022.
“The new election system was a game-changer,” the plaintiff’s motion contends, “because the African-American vote became a real factor in the District 1 race, especially after Plaintiff Atkins made preparations to again run in that election.”
Focus on Waechter
Turning to Waechter himself, the motion points out that, not only as past chair of the county Republican Party but also as “a long-term member of its executive committee, Waechter wielded immense influence and power with Republican candidates and office holders. For years,” the motion continues, “he chose favored Republican candidates, opposed Republican candidates whose candidates he did not approve, and raised money for candidates.”
Further, the motion points to Waechter’s alleged “orchestration of [the county’s] last redistricting in 2011,” saying that even before the 2010 Census data was released, “Waechter decided it was time [to redraw the boundaries]. He met with each commissioner, told them they should redistrict, and in emails to their personal accounts shared his own redistricting map, which the Commission dutifully adopted in Resolution 2011-085.” The motion cites statements Waechter made in his deposition as its basis for those assertions.
“In 2019,” the motion continues, “history repeated itself. After the change to single-member district voting, Waechter concluded that the differences in Republican and Democratic voter registrations were smaller in District 1 than in other districts. He therefore began efforts to spur redistricting in advance of the [C]ensus. … He began pushing redistricting even though (i) the County did not have current population information; (ii) the 2020 [Decennial Census results, which would not be known until early 2021], would provide presumptively accurate population information; and (iii) [Sarasota County] would be required by the Florida Constitution to redistrict again in 2021.”
The motion says Waechter claimed in his deposition to have had no conversations with commissioners or “any other person” in county government about redistricting in 2019.
However, the motion points out that in his deposition, “Waechter testified that it is his practice to put emails in topic folders and then delete them when the topic is completed. (‘I very consciously delete emails.’) He posits that he therefore may have deleted redistricting communications and materials but is not sure.’”
In her deposition, the motion says, Sarasota County demographer “Tamara Schells testified that [Waechter] called and urged [county] staff to provide current population [figures] to support redistricting in 2019. … Schells responded that County staff would not make any population estimates unless the Commission directed them to do so. … On April 7, 2019, [the county’s] planning director said the same; he told Deputy County Administrator Brad Johnson that the staff would not examine redistricting unless the Commission directed them to do so. [Matt Osterhoudt is director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department.]
“Only two days later,” the motion says, “and not surprisingly, the Commission provided that direction.” The board asked staff to report back at its May 7, 2019 meeting, the motion notes.
“Four business days prior to the May 7 meeting,” the motion points out, citing his deposition, “Waechter provided the County Administration with his hand-drawn map, which moved African-American voters out of District 1 and replaced them with white voters.”
The motion proceeds to recount staff’s use of a software program the county employs “for planning purposes” to estimate the population in each district in 2018 and compare the figures to those in the 2010 Census. “Their analysis showed that the deviation between the largest and smallest district was less than 10%,” which was “sufficiently ‘equal’” as required under the U.S. and Florida Constitutions.
The consultant’s work
The County Commission “did not accept the staff’s population estimate, however,” the motion continues. “Instead, the Board hired a consultant to make new estimates of the County’s current population by district.”
That consultant, Kurt Spitzer of Tallahassee, subsequently contracted with the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR) to come up with the population estimates, as BEBR annually provides county and municipal population estimates for the state. “These estimations, however … are insufficient to estimate population by census block — the increment necessary to equalize population by district,” the motion points out.
Spitzer acknowledged the latter fact in his deposition, the motion says.
Using the BEBR data, the motion continues, Sptizer estimated the difference between the largest and smallest commission districts was 12.3%.
The resulting maps Spitzer hired a full-time employee of the City of Tallahassee to draw — as noted in his deposition, the motion says — mirrored the existing district boundaries. Newtown remained in District 1, the motion points out.
“In the meantime,” the motion adds, “Waechter continued to push for a drastic change in the boundaries between Districts 1 and 2, without publicly revealing his efforts.”
Finally, on Nov. 19, 2019, the motion notes, “despite emotional and vocal objections by African-American citizens, the Commission voted 3-2 to adopt the Waechter Map,” thereby disenfranchising thousands of African-Americans from voting in the 2020 elections.”
In summing up its arguments and supporting judicial precedents, the motion contends, “The balance of equities in this case [weighs] strongly in favor of the Plaintiffs. Absent an injunction, thousands of African-American voters in existing District 1 will not be permitted to vote in the 2020 election because of the color of their skin. On the other hand,” the motion continues, “granting of the injunction will not be a hardship for [Sarasota County]; it will use the same district boundaries that it has used for nine years, and that its staff calculated were within acceptable deviation percentages.”
The county will be able to consider redistricting again in 2021, the motion adds, “using current census data that will presumptively reflect the actual population of each district.”