Redistricting timeline for Sarasota County could have been less compressed if staff had kept up with Census Bureau announcements about timing of data release

In 2019, County Commission held numerous public discussions, and staff organized district sessions to educate the public about the process

Commissioner Christian Ziegler. File image

At various times over the past months, Sarasota County commissioners have blamed President Joe Biden and his administration for the short redistricting timeline the board has been following.

On April 20, for example, Commissioner Christian Ziegler took such an opportunity. “I think that compiling the Census is a lot more difficult than just releasing the Census,” Ziegler said.

(Ziegler is the vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida.)

Yet, based on county administrative staff responses to a recent Sarasota News Leaderinquiry, county staff members did not act as quickly as they could have because they were expecting the 2020 Census data to be made public a month later than it actually appeared.

“The Census data was initially planned to be released at the end of September 2021,” administrative staff pointed out in a Nov. 4 email to the News Leader. “The hiring of Mr. Spitzer was planned in accordance with that timeline,” the email added.

Kurt Spitzer, whose eponymous firm, Kurt Spitzer & Associates, is based in Tallahassee, won another county contract this summer to assist the county with redistricting. He handled the work, as well, in 2019.

On Feb. 12, the Census Bureau had announced that it would deliver the redistricting data to all states by Sept. 30. “COVID-19-related delays and prioritizing the delivery of apportionment results delayed the Census Bureau’s original plan to deliver the redistricting data to the states by March 31, 2021,” a Census Bureau statement said.

Nonetheless, on Aug. 12, the Census Bureau did provide the necessary data for redistricting at the county level.

In fact, on July 29 — the same day that Spitzer provided Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson his final, proposed outline for the new round of work for the county — the Census Bureau issued a press release that included its schedule for releasing the 2020 Census redistricting data. At the top of that schedule was the date Aug. 12. The item said, “The Census Bureau will provide redistricting data in the legacy format that state officials have used the last two decades. These data will consist of 2020 Census population counts by race, Hispanic origin, and voting age, as well as housing unit data for counties, places, census tracts and blocks.”

This is the top of the July 29 news release of the U.S. Census Bureau. Image courtesy of the Census Bureau

At 8:26 a.m. on July 30, Johnson emailed Assistant County Attorney Sarah Blackwell and Chief Deputy County Attorney Karl Senkow, telling them that Spitzer had accepted staff’s tweaks to Spitzer’s proposal “and made a couple of his own. I am ok with his changes,” Johnson continued. “Let me know if you have any feedback. If possible I would like to get this done today before I leave for vacation.”

At 9:30 a.m., Blackwell responded, copying Senkow: “The changes are acceptable.”

Then, at 11:24 that day, Johnson emailed County Administrator Jonathan Lewis: “We would like to proceed with contracting with Kurt Spritzer Associates to perform the Post Census redistricting analysis and validation once the 2020 Census data is released. We need to file a waiver under the Management Studies category with Procurement to do so. Attached is the proposal from KSA to complete the work.”

As the News Leader previously reported, Johnson requested the waiver from Lewis to enable the county Procurement Department to approve the hiring of Spitzer & Associates without staff’s having to pursue the standard bid process.

The firm’s final proposal for its 2021 contract with the county was delivered via email on Aug. 9, according to documents the News Leader received through a public records request.

This is the Aug. 20 purchase order for the services of Kurt Spitzer & Associates. The signature belongs to Jennifer Slusarz, manager of the county’s Procurement Department. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The need for new district lines

On Aug. 12, the U.S. Census Bureau did release all of the information necessary for redistricting at the county level.

Using that new information, county Planner/Demographer Tamara Schells created a graphic showing that the county population had grown by 14.4% from 2010 to 2020. Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, and two of the other senior staff members in that department received it from her just after 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 13.

Osterhoudt forwarded it to County Administrator Lewis and his deputy and assistant administrators almost exactly two hours later. And, almost exactly two more hours later, Lewis responded to Osterhoudt, advising him, “[W]e need to make sure the [commissioners] get a copy before it is posted [on the county website].”

Osterhoudt did as he was asked, telling the board members, “We anticipate this information being posted on [the county’s demographics page] this upcoming week.”

This is a chart created by county staff in August, showing the updated population figures. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Then, on Aug. 20, county staff approved the formal purchase order for the hiring of Kurt Spitzer & Associates.

The first meetings the County Commission conducted after its traditional summer break were held on Aug. 24 and 25. Yet, no one mentioned redistricting either day.

It was not until their regular meeting on Sept. 28 that the topic arose. During their discussion, the commissioners agreed that redistricting would be necessary once again this year, based on the Census data.

Spitzer himself did not appear at a board meeting until Oct. 19.

In response to another News Leader question, administrative staff wrote in the Nov. 4 email, “Since the release date of the Census data was originally set for the end of September 2021, the next available BCC meetings [were] October 12 and 13, and Mr. Spitzer’s agreement reflected that timeline. Once the data was released at the end of August 2021 the timeline was advanced to take the analysis to the [commissioners] on September 28, two weeks ahead of schedule.”

The release of the 2020 Census data was compromised by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Washington Post reported on Jan. 16 that the Census Bureau had announced in April 2020 that difficulties related to the pandemic would necessitate an extra four months for it to complete the decennial count.

However, the completion of the Census work also was compromised by former President Donald Trump’s months-long attempt to prevent people who are not citizens from being counted. The latter effort — which resulted in a legal battle — contradicted the long-standing practice of counting every person regardless of whether that person was a U.S. citizen, publications have pointed out.

Proceeding on the current timeline

Brian Goodrich. Image from the Bentley Goodrich Kison law firm website

Finally, on Oct. 26, the majority of the commissioners voted to advertise a new district map that Spitzer had created, plus two maps that attorney Brian Goodrich of the Sarasota firm Bentley Goodrich Kison had submitted to county staff. (Commissioner Nancy Detert had been adamant about allowing the public to suggest new district boundaries this year, as she did in 2019.)

Detert opposed the inclusion of the Goodrich maps in the process.

Additionally on Oct. 26, members of the public alleged the involvement once again of Siesta Key resident Robert Waechter in the drawing of the Goodrich maps, as Goodrich’s law partner, Morgan Bentley, is Waechter’s attorney, speakers pointed out.

Detert also voiced concern about the fact that Goodrich had flipped the physical locations of Districts 1 and 2 in what Spitzer had dubbed “Goodrich Map 2.”

Goodrich told the News Leader in an email exchange that Waechter “has no connection to these maps whatsoever.”

In 2019, Waechter sparked controversy by submitting a map with new districts under the nom de plume “Adam Smith,” and it ended up being the basis for the districts the commissioners adopted that year.

After Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Zac Anderson believed he had linked the map to Waechter, Waechter acknowledged that he had created it.

During the Oct. 26 meeting, Detert pointed out, “Redistricting is a highly politicized process, no matter what you do.” She added, “I feel that we should have stuck with our consultant’s map.”

On Nov. 15, the county commissioners are scheduled to hold their public hearing on the three maps that have been proposed with new district boundaries. That meeting will begin at 1:30 p.m. in the Commission Chambers at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota, which stands at 1660 Ringling Blvd. (See the related article in this issue.)

Less time and more controversy

During the run-up to the 2019 vote on new district maps, the board members held numerous discussions on redistricting, with Commissioner Detert having launched the process in late February of that year by asking staff to determine the population in each of the five districts.

On Aug. 27, 2019, the commissioners voted 4-1 to proceed with redistricting. At that time, Commissioner Ziegler opposed the action, saying he believed they should wait until they had the 2020 Census data.

That date also was the first time that consultant Spitzer appeared before the board members during the 2019 process.

This is the schedule staff proposed for completing the redistricting process in 2019. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Additionally, 16 members of the public addressed the board members, with all but three speakers agreeing that redistricting was an unnecessary initiative that year.

Detert and other commissioners asserted that they had no choice but to redraw the district lines because of population growth and the November 2018 passage of the Single-Member Districts County Charter amendment. The latter says that citizens can vote only for commission candidates who live in the same district where they live. Previously, all commissioners were elected countywide.

Therefore, board members told the public, they wanted to make certain that each of them represented approximately the same number of district constituents. “I think the balance has to be as accurate as we can make it,” Detert said.

The new voting system was to go into effect for the 2020 election.

Moreover, Commissioner Michael Moran pointed out that state law allows local governments to undertake redistricting only in odd-numbered years.

Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

On Sept. 11, 2019, Assistant County Administrator Johnson appeared before the board members to report that staff was working on dates, locations and times so a redistricting meeting could be held in each district before the end of that month.

This year, the board members eschewed such public sessions, not only because of the shorter timeline but also because, as Commissioner Ziegler pointed out, few people attended those district meetings.

On Sept. 11, 2019, Johnson also talked of the compressed timeline under which staff and the board members were working, with the public hearing on new maps to be conducted on Nov. 5.

As it turned out, the hearing was delayed to Nov. 19, 2019.

Yet another County Commission meeting that fall — held on Oct. 30, 2019 — drew 32 members of the public on the redistricting issue.

Finally, on Nov. 19, 2019, the board members voted 3-2 to approve new district lines. Then-Commissioner Charles Hines joined Commissioner Ziegler in the minority. Hines had alluded to the prospect of a legal challenge against the county because the map his colleagues had settled on would move the traditionally African-American community of Newtown from District 1 to District 2. Members of the public had pointed out that Newtown residents traditionally vote for Democratic candidates. Residents also argued that the shift of the community out of Commissioner Moran’s district was a move designed to ensure his re-election. He indeed was re-elected.

And a lawsuit was filed, but the federal judge who heard it ended up ruling for the county, saying he could find no evidence of racial discrimination in the redistricting process.

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