Resolution to be drafted to express Sarasota City Commission concerns that Newtown voters could be prevented from casting ballots in 2020 County Commission District 1 race

Commissioner Willie Shaw wins colleagues’ consensus for action

City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs (second from left) joins City Attorney Robert Fournier (far left), City Manager Tom Barwin (second from right), Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown (far right) and the commissioners at the dais on March 4. File image

They took no official vote on Nov. 4. Nonetheless, the Sarasota City commissioners directed City Attorney Robert Fournier to draw up a resolution for them to express their opposition to redistricting efforts of the County Commission that could prevent Newtown voters from participating in the 2020 District 1 race for the County Commission.

Fournier agreed to draft language for the City Commission’s consideration when it holds its next regular session on Nov. 18.

“In your legalize,” Commissioner Willie Shaw told Fournier, “give me something that’s going to be as mean as if you were [directly affected by the prospect of voter disenfranchisement].”
“Understood,” Fournier replied.

Shaw, who represents Newtown, the historically African American community in North Sarasota, raised the county redistricting issue during his board report as the City Commission conducted its regular meeting on Nov. 4.

His constituents, Shaw said, “have been very much concerned” about the County Commission’s efforts to draw new district lines before the end of this year.

All of the county commissioners except Commissioner Christian Ziegler have maintained that population growth has necessitated the redistricting because of the November 2018 passage of a County Charter amendment that implements Single-Member Districts. That amendment allows a citizen in a district to vote only for a candidate who lives in the same district. In the 2020 election, the seats representing County Commission Districts 1, 3 and 5 will be up for a vote.

State Rep. Wengay ‘Newt’ Newton, who represents part of Sarasota County, was among speakers on Oct. 30 who urged the County Commission not to disenfranchise Newtown voters. Image courtesy Florida House of Representatives

During an Oct. 30 special meeting, a number of county residents argued against any new district boundaries that would move Newtown voters into District 2, since that would prevent Newtown citizens from casting ballots for a county commissioner until the 2022 election at the earliest.

Although County Commissioner Michael Moran has yet to file for re-election, he has represented District 1 since he won the seat in November 2016. Commissioner Nancy Detert of Venice, who represents District 3, has said she plans to run again for that seat. County Commission Chair Charles Hines, who represents District 5, will have to step down from the board in 2020 because of term limits.

During the Nov. 4 City Commission discussion, City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie pointed out that if the County Commission ended up adopting Alternative Map 4.1 — one of the two maps the County Commission has authorized for advertisement for a Nov. 19 public hearing — Democratic District 1 candidate Fredd Atkins of Newtown would be forced out of the race. In that event, she added, “We’re looking at disenfranchisement on two levels.”

“The fact that [that map is] even on the table — I don’t have a nice word to say,” Freeland Eddie told her colleagues. In her opinion, as an attorney, she continued, it would violate the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

(The second map the County Commission authorized for advertisement — 2.A-1 — would keep Newtown in District 1. On Oct. 30, the County Commission approved the two proposed maps on a 3-2 vote. Hines and Commissioner Christian Ziegler cast the “No” votes. Hines noted his concerns about the impact Map 4.1 could have on Newtown. Ziegler has opposed redistricting this year, arguing that his board should wait until after the 2020 U.S. Census results are available. See the related story in this issue.)

A call to figurative arms

As he continued his remarks on Nov. 4, City Commissioner Shaw asked, “How do we speak up for the people of [Newtown]?”

Forty years ago, he continued — in 1979 — Newtown residents challenged the city’s voting system, arguing that it prevented a Newtown resident from having an opportunity to win a seat on the City Commission. It took six years, Shaw said — until 1985 — for Newtown to elect a community member to the city board, as a result of the legal initiative.

Commissioner Willie Shaw. File image

“The more things change,” Shaw added, “the more they remain the same.”

He had talked with City Attorney Fournier about potential action the City Commission could take in response to the County Commission’s efforts, Shaw pointed out. “It’s just ridiculous that we should have to go back, the further we go forward.”

Sarasota has been named one of the best places in Florida to retire, Shaw noted, just as it has won national accolades as one of the best places to live in the United States. Yet, he said, Newtown again is facing disenfranchisement.

Fournier pointed out that if the County Commission adopted legal district boundaries after the 2010 Census data was released, then the County Commission, under the guidelines of the law, does not have to redraw those lines until 2021.

“Do we do it early at the expense of disenfranchising voters?” Freeland Eddie stressed.

Confusion then ensued about when the County Commission would hold its public hearing and potentially adopt one of the two maps.

Although Freeland Eddie noted that she had spoken, on her own, during the Oct. 30 special meeting, she was not sure when the public hearing would be conducted.

Commissioner Hagen Brody said he thought Nov. 18 was the date.

Finally, the city commissioners concluded that Nov. 19 is when the County Commission will conduct the public hearing. Therefore, they agreed, they would be able to address a resolution during their regular meeting on Nov. 18.

Fournier told them he knew he could have the document ready for them that day.

When Shaw asked whether Fournier needed a motion, Fournier indicated that board consensus was sufficient.

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