Redrawing of County Commission districts planned before end of year

Public invited to submit maps for board consideration

These are the Sarasota County Commission districts approved on Nov. 19, 2019. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Yes, the Sarasota County commissioners will approve new district maps before the end of this year, they agreed this week.

And, yes, the board members will allow the public to submit maps, just as they did when they pursued redistricting in 2019.

At the board’s direction on Sept. 28, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis said staff could create another online portal to facilitate the submission of maps from members of the public.

This time, though, as Commissioner Nancy Detert put it, if anyone does turn in a map for consideration, “They should have to put their name on it — and, by the way, their real name …”

During the 2019 redistricting process, Siesta Key resident Robert Waechter, a former chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota County, initially submitted a map under the name “Adam Smith.” After Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Zac Anderson tracked that map back to Waechter, Waechter acknowledged that the map was his.

That map ended up being the basis for the district lines the commissioners approved in November 2019.

Commissioner Michael Moran showed the County Commission meeting audience this graphic on Oct. 30, 2019, comparing a map submitted by environmental activist Jono Miller with a map proposed by Robert Waechter, former chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota County who supported new district lines. Moran argued that the Waechter map represented a more logical plan for the new districts. File image

Yet, even this week, Commissioner Michael Moran continued to contend that Jono Miller of Sarasota, the retired director of the Environmental Studies Program at New College of Florida, came up with the map that influenced the version Waechter submitted. Miller made it clear in a Facebook post in 2019 that that he was angered by Moran’s assertion.

“I’ve grown tired of reading that my ‘map’ (I submitted two) is similar to the Adam Smith (Waechter) Map,” Miller wrote. “Honestly — I can’t see how either of my maps can be viewed as either inspiration for or basis of the Adam Smith map.”

This week, the commissioners also agreed to have the same consultant whom county staff hired in 2019 — Kurt Spitzer, of Tallahassee — draw alternative maps for the board’s consideration.

As The Sarasota News Leader reported in late August, County Administrator Lewis authorized an expedited procurement process to facilitate Spitzer’s new contract. The estimated fee Spitzer is to receive, based on that agreement, is $50,000. That includes the preparation of maps and an appearance at one County Commission meeting to respond to any questions about those maps and the redistricting process.

This is part of the waiver form that Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson discussed in staff email exchanges this summer in an effort to expedite the latest hiring of consultant Kurt Spitzer. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During the Sept. 28 County Commission discussion on redistricting, Detert indicated that she had talked with Spitzer and that “he claims to be able to move a couple of [district] lines” to achieve the necessary population balance. “I think our consultant can [create new maps] without a lot of hoo-hah.”

Lewis concurred that Spitzer probably could complete that work “fairly quickly.”

As noted in a Sept. 21 memo that County Attorney Frederick J. “Rick” Elbrecht provided to the commissioners, Spitzer has determined that the largest difference between individual districts is 14%.

“So legally, over 10%, we are supposed to redistrict, correct?” Detert asked Elbrecht on Sept. 28.

“It’s highly recommended,” Elbrecht replied, referencing a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that commissioners cited as the reason for their action in 2019.

A chart included in a staff memo provided to the board members in advance of the meeting said that, based on the 2020 Census data, the ideal population count for each of the five districts should be 86,801. District 3 has the greatest overage — 5,330 people, according to a chart included in that memo. The biggest deficit is in District 2, which has 7,018 too few people, the chart says.

The county’s population is 434,006, the Census report says.

This is the chart showing the district population counts, provided by Kurt Spitzer & Associates. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This is a chart showing the district population counts that Sarasota resident R.N. Collins prepared, based on the 2020 Census data. He provided it to the News Leader for a comparison with consultant Kurt Spitzer’s map. Collins found numerous errors with Spitzer’s redistrict work in 2019. Image courtesy R.N. Collins

Then and now

With voters in November 2018 having approved the inclusion of the Single-Member District voting system in the Sarasota County Charter, board members insisted in 2019 that redistricting was necessary to ensure that all five of the County Commission districts have population as equal as possible. Under the Single-Member Districts system, a citizen can cast a ballot only for a commission candidate who lives in the same district as the voter. Previously, every county voter could cast a ballot for a candidate in each commission race. (See the related article in this issue.)

During the Sept. 28 discussion, Commissioner Christian Ziegler noted that, in 2019, the largest difference between any two of the five board districts was 10,000 people. Based on the 2020 Census data, he added, that figure is 12,000.

He was quick to join Detert in calling for public participation. However, Ziegler said he did not feel that county staff should host a meeting in each district, as it did in 2019. “Less than 100 people attended all of  ’em combined,” he pointed out of those sessions.

“Frankly, we don’t have enough time to do it,” Ziegler said of conducting such meetings.

Commissioner Moran also concurred immediately with the proposal for redistricting, based on the new population data. Moreover, he said, “Everything I’m hearing from staff is it’s feasible.”

This is another chart prepared by Kurt Spitzer & Associates, based on the new Census data. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Moran then stressed, “Every odd year … this board is required to look at this” — make a determination about whether the districts are in balance ahead of elections during even-numbered years.

The Florida Constitution says redistricting can occur at the county level only in odd-numbered years. County Attorney Elbrecht had suggested in his Sept. 21 memo that the board could wait until 2023 to undertake redistricting. However, the District 2 and 4 seats will be up for election in November 2022.

Ziegler pinned blame on President Joe Biden for the short timeline for redistricting this year: “The Biden Administration held the Census numbers nationally, and they just got released [in late August].”

If the board had received the data in March or April, Ziegler pointed out, more time would have been available for the county undertaking.

Ziegler is vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida.

Ballotpedia explains that the original timeline called for the Census Bureau to release redistricting data by March 31 of this year. However, on June 16, 2020, the Bureau proposed postponing the deadline because of the difficulties of accumulating data during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Subsequent litigation over a Trump administration executive order to exclude ‘aliens who are not in a lawful immigration status under the Immigration and Nationality Act’ from the final apportionment counts resulted in further delays,” Ballotpedia added.

On Sept. 28, Detert made the motion calling for redistricting by the end of this year, and Moran seconded it. They reprised those actions in a second motion that directed staff to have consultant Spitzer prepare alternate maps in, as Detert characterized it, “the least disruptive manner.” That motion further called for County Administrator Lewis to adjust the commissioners’ calendars “to accommodate the redistricting schedule.”

Again, Detert stressed, “We want full transparency and accountability as to the veracity of the maps [from the public] and the origination of the maps.”

Originally, Detert included in her second motion a directive that only registered voters could submit maps. However, after Commissioner Ziegler questioned the legality of such a stipulation, Detert agreed to amend the motion to eliminate that provision, and Moran concurred with her on that.

Pointed public comments

After the board votes, Chair Alan Maio announced that he had one card for the final Open to the Public period on the Sept. 28 agenda. The speaker was R.N. Collins of Sarasota, an economist with expertise in demographics who provided details to the commissioners in 2019 about numerous discrepancies he had found in consultant Spitzer’s work.

Commissioner Michael Moran. News Leader image

On Sept. 28, Collins told the commissioners that he believes everyone wants redistricting to be a fair and transparent process. To that end, he continued, he encouraged the commissioners to formally adopt the standards for redistricting that the Florida Senate uses. Most of those are outlined in Section 20 of the Florida Statutes: “No apportionment plan or district shall be drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent; and districts shall not be drawn with the intent or result of denying or abridging the equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process or to diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice; and districts shall consist of contiguous territory.”

Moreover, Collins encouraged the commissioners to consider allowing the minority communities whose citizens did not get to vote in the 2020 board elections to be able to do so in 2022, “especially if Commissioner Moran is looking to redistrict again in 2023.”

Collins added, “We don’t want to hold out large blocks from voting for six to eight to 10 years.”

Moran responded that the goal is to try to get the district population counts as close to equal as possible. Depending on how the lines are drawn, Moran continued, some citizens “could go eight years never being able to vote for a county commissioner, not even one!” Moran was referring to the Single-Member Districts system.

“What would you suggest we tell those people?” Moran asked Collins.

“You cannot disenfranchise anyone if you do not continually swap them from one district to another,” Collins said.

The redrawing of the district maps in 2019 “swapped 21,000 Democratic voters out of [Moran’s District 1] and replaced them with 33,000 Republican voters,” Collins has pointed out to the News Leader. He was referring to the majority of the voters in the historically African American community of Newtown in the city of Sarasota.

All of the county commissioners are Republicans.

This is a closeup of Newtown in County Commission District 2, as a result of the redistricting effort the commission pursued in 2019. Image courtesy Sarasota County

That shift of those traditionally Democratic voters to District 2, which Commissioner Ziegler represents, also ended the candidacy of former Sarasota Mayor Fredd “Glossie” Atkins, a Newtown resident, for the District 1 seat.

Moran, who holds that seat, was preparing to run for re-election.

Hugh Culverhouse Jr., the developer of Palmer Ranch and a former federal prosecutor, backed Newtown voters in a federal class action lawsuit against the 2019 redistricting initiative. Atkins was one of the named plaintiffs in the case, which charged racial discrimination on the part of the County Commission in the approval of the 2019 district maps.

U.S. District Court Judge William F. Jung ruled on May 4, 2020 that “race was not the predominant motive” for the redistricting. Jung wrote that the driver of that process appeared to be “simple political gerrymandering and ‘hardball’ partisan incumbent protection.”

During his Sept. 28 comments, Collins further pointed out to the commissioners that his analysis of the district boundaries they approved in 2019 left four homes in Warm Mineral Springs in District 3, with the rest of the dwellings in District 5. “That makes no sense to anybody.”

Additionally, he continued, the map put three buildings of a Fruitville Road apartment complex in one district and a dozen others in a different district.

This is one of three maps that Sarasota resident R.N. Collins submitted to the County Commission on Sept. 28, focused on keeping ‘communities of interest’ together within new districts. Image courtesy of R.N. Collins
This is another map that Sarasota resident R.N. Collins submitted to the County Commission on Sept. 28. It is ocused on ensuring no disenfranchisement of county voters in the 2022 elections. Image courtesy of R.N. Collins

Collins added that he would be happy to talk with the commissioners about such issues involving those 2019 districts.