Opponents of redistricting urging allies to appear at meeting and make public comments; proponents point to long history of commission redistricting between releases of decennial Census data
On Aug. 27, the Sarasota County Commission is scheduled to hear a presentation related to the redrawing of its district maps before the end of this year, a proposal for which the majority of the board members have expressed support.
In an Aug. 5 memo, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis provided the commissioners a copy of a report from the Tallahassee consultant the county hired in June to update population figures for the five commission districts, Kurt Spitzer & Associates.
The fee for the firm’s work on that report was $16,000, based on Lewis’ memo.
The Aug. 27 session will be the first regular meeting of the board since its summer recess began in the latter part of July.
Since the commissioners last discussed redistricting — on May 22 — opponents and proponents of the initiative have worked to get their views in front of the public.
Proponents have cited the fact that, between 1979 and 1995, the board redrew district boundaries a number of times between the decennial Census counts, to keep up with growth. Opponents argue that the board members are wasting taxpayers’ money in an effort to keep incumbents on the commission and counter the results of the November 2018 voter approval of the implementation of Single-Member Districts, starting with the 2020 County Commission elections.
Organized as Stop SRQGerrymandering, the opponents are endeavoring to “secure support from a broad coalition of bipartisan/nonpartisan citizen groups and individuals,” an email blast says. They also are urging people to gather at the Aug. 27 County Commission meeting to make their views on the issue known by providing public comments. Opponents of redistricting this year are encouraged to wear purple.
That meeting will begin at 9 a.m. in the Commission Chambers at the County Administration Center, located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota. As of the publication deadline this week for The Sarasota News Leader, the agenda had not been made available. It may be found on the Meetings on Demand page of the county website set aside for County Commission sessions.
Details of the consultant’s report
The Aug. 2 report from Kurt Spitzer & Associates found that population growth since 2011 — the last time redistricting was undertaken — has resulted in an estimated increase in District 5 that deviates by 7.59% from the desired balance of 83,488 people.
The District 5 seat, held by Commissioner Charles Hines, will be up for election in 2020, as term limits are forcing Hines to step down.
In District 3, population growth led to a deviation of 5.56%, the report added. Commissioner Nancy Detert, who is eligible for re-election, represents that district. Thus far, she has not filed to seek another term.
Commissioner Michael Moran, who represents District 1, also is eligible for re-election. Like Detert, he has not filed to seek another term.
The remaining three districts showed lower population deviations, as a result of counts below the 83,448 mark, the report continued. For District 1, the deviation was put at 4.51%; for District 2, 4.67%; and for District 4, 3.97%.
Kurt Spitzer & Associates found District 2 to have the lowest total population of the five districts, based on the methodology it used.
County staff’s estimates for the commission earlier this year — derived through use of Esri software the county already licenses — showed no deviation greater than 5.11%, which was in District 5.
In its Aug. 2 report, Spitzer & Associates also provided a table with its estimates of population breakdown in each district by race.
District 5 had the highest percentage of white people — 96.56% — while District 1 had the lowest percentage — 80.38%, the report said.
In District 1, which encompasses part of the city of Sarasota, the percentage of black residents was estimated at 14.58%, Spitzer & Associates reported. The number of Hispanic residents was put at 16.95%.
District 3 had the second highest percentage of black residents — 5.44% — while District 5 had the lowest — 0.70%.
District 2 had the second highest number of Hispanic residents, Spitzer & Associates estimated — 11.47%. District 5 had the smallest number — 3.91%, the report said.
“Initial estimates for 2018 population were made utilizing property parcel data from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser to estimate the change in total population from 2010 to 2018 by census block,” the Spitzer & Associates report explained. “This was accomplished by using the 2010 census metrics for residential unit occupancy and household size [in calculations for] residential units added from 2010 to 2018, and making a proportional change to population in group quarters (e.g. assisted living facilities, dormitories, etc.),” the report added.
“The population information was then controlled by city and unincorporated area to the 2018 official BEBR population estimates for all jurisdictions within Sarasota County,” the report pointed out. BEBR is the Bureau of Economic and Business Research of the University of Florida.
Further, the report explained, “The 2010 percentages of white, black, other, Hispanic and population age 18+ years was carried forward to the 2018 estimates. The 2018 population was then adjusted for each cohort at the county level to the Census Bureau’s population estimates for race.”
Spitzer & Associates also explained that it settled on its approach for the population estimates because of time constraints. Under the guidelines of the Florida Statutes and the Sarasota County Charter, it pointed out, the County Commission would have to complete the redistricting by Dec. 31.
Moreover, the report said, “BEBR has been a primary source of data about Florida and for the State of Florida for over 80 years. Official estimates of Florida municipal and county population are produced by BEBR each year, and are widely recognized and used in many State programs, such as those which distribute state revenues to local governments.”
Additionally, the report noted, “Other approaches … would likely have been much more expensive and taken much more time.”
However, the firm acknowledged, “It is difficult to determine the factor or factors contributing to the difference in 2018 population results” it found, compared to those county staff had calculated. “This is not to say that one method is ‘good’ and the other ‘bad,’” the firm added.
In recent weeks, one opponent of the county’s intent to redraw the districts this year has focused on past actions by Commissioner Nancy Detert to diminish voter participation in elections.
Detert is the board member who broached the idea of redistricting, bringing it up in late February. She has remained adamant about her proposal, in spite of residents appearing before the board during public meetings to plead for the board to reverse course.
Community organizer Gabriel Hament wrote in a recent email blast to fellow opponents and the news media that Detert “has a record of abridging voting access …” He was referring to her terms in the Florida House and Senate, prior to her 2016 election to the County Commission. Hament first pointed to a magazine interview with Detert six years ago.
In the March 2013 article in Sarasota Magazine, now-Associate Editor Cooper Levey-Baker wrote that Detert “remains unapologetic about one vote: her 2011 ‘yes’ that helped cut the number of early voting days from 14 to eight. The measure eliminated voting on the final Sunday before Election Day, which had been a popular day for African-Americans to cast their ballots.”
“One study,” Levey-Baker continued, “estimated that 49,000 voters in Central Florida alone were discouraged from voting in 2012 because of long lines on Election Day.”
Detert told Levey-Baker that people who supported the extended voting schedule were guilty of “‘rounding up people who had no intention of voting’” and who knew “‘nothing about any of the candidates.’”
Hament wrote that Detert “intentionally struck at the heart of a long tradition in minority communities of post-Church services Sunday voting.”
However, in responding to one of Hament’s email blasts, Eric Robinson, Sarasota County School Board member and former chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota, pointed out that the number of hours of early voting remained the same, even as the number of days was reduced.
Hament further noted in his email blast that the County Commission has no minority member at this time, and all the board members are Republicans.
Additionally, Hament has written that Detert was among the members of the 2012 Florida Senate who voted for gerrymandered state Senate and congressional maps. In July 2015, Politico reported, “The Republican-led Florida Senate admitted [to the gerrymandering] in a court filing …”
“In December of 2015, the Supreme Court of Florida and the Second Judicial Circuit Court in Leon County ordered new congressional and state senate plans, respectively,” the Florida Senate reports on a webpage.
Hament also has stressed that Detert initially referred to voter registration numbers being unbalanced in the five commission districts, although redistricting must be based on population figures.
Among other opponents, representatives of Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE) have implored the commission not to spend money on an initiative that is unnecessary prior to the release of the 2020 U.S. Census data.
SAFE won enough signatures of registered voters to put the Single-Member District Sarasota County Charter amendment on the November 2018 ballot; almost 60% of the voters who cast ballots on the question voted for it.
SAFE members see the commission’s plan as politically motivated.
However, commissioners have argued that the passage of the Single-Member District amendment is one key reason for redrawing the districts early.
Commissioners have alluded to the passage of the amendment during a number of discussions since November 2018, indicating that county residents will be dissatisfied with a lack of collaboration among board members in the future as commissioners seek to look out just for their own constituents and not the county as a whole.
The Charter amendment permits a voter to cast a ballot just for a commission candidate who lives in the same district as the voter. In the past, voters in a General Election were able to cast a ballot for a candidate in every commission race.
A history of redistricting
Proponents of redistricting are arguing that population growth — especially in the southern and eastern parts of the county — dictates that the commission not wait until the results of the 2020 Census to redraw district boundaries.
They also cite the lack of institutional knowledge among county residents about past efforts to correct district imbalances.
Along with post-Census redistricting, past commissions approved the redrawing of the district lines in 1979, 1983, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1993 and 1995, according to a review of ordinances the board approved. In each of the following years, countywide elections were held.
For one example, Resolution No. 83-326 says, “[T]he Sarasota County Planning Department has suggested certain changes in existing county commissioner districts in order to obtain a more equal distribution of population within said districts …” It was adopted on Oct. 25, 1983.
Prior to approval of the new district boundaries in 1986, board minutes show that “no one in the audience wished to be heard …”
That resolution was signed on Jan. 14, 1986 by then commission Vice Chair Mabry Carlton Jr.
A table accompanying the Nov. 2, 1993 resolution approving new districts showed the total county population was 293,713, with “Optimum Population Per District” put at 58,743. The resulting range of district population deviation was recorded at 1.55%.