Implications during Oct. 26 board discussion focused on potential Waechter role in latest redistricting endeavor
Editor’s note: This article was updated in the afternoon of Oct. 29 to correct information regarding the Alternative 1-A map that redistricting consultant Kurt Spitzer provided to the county.
In spite of implications during the Oct. 26 Sarasota County Commission meeting, the attorney who submitted the only public redistricting maps that the board members approved for advertisement has told The Sarasota News Leader that Siesta Key resident Robert Waechter had nothing to do with the drawing of the lines.
A former chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota County, Waechter sparked residents’ outrage in 2019, when he turned in a proposed redistricting map under the name “Adam Smith.” It ended up being the basis for the new district lines the commissioners approved that year on a 3-2 vote.
After Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Zac Anderson tracked the “Adam Smith” map to Waechter, Waechter acknowledged that he had created it.
Brian Goodrich of the Sarasota firm Bentley Goodrich Kison wrote the News Leader in an Oct. 28 email, “Although our office represented Bob Waechter in the past, he has no connection to these maps whatsoever. I have only spoken to Mr. Waechter a handful of times with the last time being about three years ago. Mr. Waechter did not know about these maps, he was not shown them in advance and he was not consulted about them. He has nothing to do with them. In fact, I’d bet Mr. Waechter would probably disagree with our maps.”
During the Open to the Public period of the Oct. 26 County Commission meeting, reporter Jon Susce of Sarasota alleged Waechter’s involvement in the latest redistricting process. Susce pointed out that Goodrich is a partner in a law firm with Waechter’s attorney, Morgan Bentley.
Additionally, Commissioner Nancy Detert voted this week to exclude the two Goodrich maps from consideration for the new commission districts during the Nov. 15 public hearing.
The item related to approval of maps for that hearing was part of the commission’s Consent Agenda of routine business items, so she pulled it for discussion.
On Oct. 19, the board members appeared to agree unanimously to ask their Tallahassee-based consultant, Kurt Spitzer, to tweak the proposed map he had submitted to them so the southern boundary of District 1 would be State Road 72. Then they approved the Goodrich maps.
Early during that special meeting, Detert had indicated her intention to vote against one of the latter, Goodrich Map 2, which also was dubbed the “corncob pipe map. It flips the physical locations of Districts 1 and 2. However, when Chair Alan Maio called for the vote, she did not voice opposition. During the Oct. 26 board meeting, she indicated that she thought she had voted “No” on that map on Oct. 19.
“Redistricting is a highly politicized process, no matter what you do,” Detert pointed out on Oct. 26. “I feel that we should have stuck with our consultant’s map.”
Thanks to the 2019 redistricting initiative, for which Spitzer also served as a consultant, Detert continued, “We did all the heavy lifting.” Spitzer needed to make only minor changes this year to the districts the board approved then, she said, to reflect the population data from the 2020 Census.
Detert added that she had hoped that Goodrich would have been present at the Oct. 26 meeting. “I would have liked an explanation,” she said, about why he crafted his second map the way he did.
A second member of the public who had submitted maps for the latest round of redistricting, R.N. Collins, did appear at the Oct. 19 board meeting, Detert continued on Oct. 26. “[He] defended his maps, and I appreciated hearing that.”
Collins had encouraged the commissioners to allow county residents to review all of the publicly submitted maps except for two, which, he said, had too much deviation to make them legally defensible. Collins himself had turned in four maps.
Spitzer reminded the board members that day that population variations of greater than 10% among the districts are not viewed favorably. The basis for that is a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that commissioners cited when they undertook redistricting in 2019.
In response to a News Leader question about flipping Districts 1 and 2 in the “corncob pipe map,” Goodrich wrote in his Oct. 28 email that he had no particular reason in mind. “To me,” he added, “how the map is is irrelevant; what matters is the boundaries of the districts.”
On Oct. 19, before her colleagues eliminated the other public maps, Detert suggested a couple of times that individuals who had submitted proposals to the county appear before the board “so we know who they are.”
One speaker during the Oct. 26 Open to the Public comment period — Pat Rounds of Sarasota — asked the board members whether they planned to require any member of the public who submitted a map to provide “a full explanation and rationale for each map.”
She also pointed out that transposing Districts 1 and 2 “is contrary to your own guidelines published on your website … It’s very problematic.”
In response to a News Leader question about whether he planned to appear during the Nov. 15 public hearing to discuss the reasoning behind the district lines in his maps, Goodrich wrote, “No. The rationale is simply an attempt to achieve balance on the commission. That’s it.”
Goodrich also replied to another News Leader question asking whether he has expertise in demographics: “No, but that would be cool.”
County attorney advises against flipping districts
During the Oct. 19 discussion, Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who represents District 2, voiced his belief that he would be able to stay in that district because of the way Goodrich had drawn the lines in the “corncob pipe map.”
Yet, early that morning, Ziegler asked County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht about the idea of flipping districts, as that Goodrich map was not the only one to modify the physical location of districts.
“That can get very confusing,” Elbrecht replied. “I would recommend that we don’t do that,” he added in reference to renumbering the districts.
At another point, consultant Spitzer himself recommended that Districts 1 and 2 in the Goodrich “corncob pipe map” be re-designated so they would be aligned with the numbers in the map the board adopted in 2019. “It’s a significant change to your current system,” Spitzer said.
“I just don’t understand the configuration of Goodrich No. 2,” Detert added that day. “It doesn’t keep communities of interest together” in its version of District 1, she pointed out, referencing a longstanding principle of redistricting.
Goodrich No. 2, she continued, “takes in Longboat Key,” downtown Sarasota and Lake Sarasota. “I don’t consider those groups having like-minded interests.”
Commissioner Michael Moran responded that his initial reaction to it was not a positive one. However, he talked of his support for the fact that the commissioner in the new District 1 would represent constituents in a swath from the Gulf of Mexico all the way out east. Then, he added, the District 2 commissioner would represent an area that would extend from the northern part of the county all the way down to South County.
When Chair Maio suggested renumbering Districts 1 and 2 on the Goodrich No. 2 map, Ziegler pointed out that doing so would remove him from District 2.
The commissioners ended up eliminating all the other publicly submitted maps because those would put Commissioner Ron Cutsinger into a new district. Cutsinger, who represents District 5, was just elected to the board in November 2020.
In response to a question from Commissioner Ziegler, County Attorney Elbrecht explained that if a commissioner’s residence were to be moved to a different district, that commissioner would be able to serve out his or her term but could not run for re-election in that district.
A balancing act
During his Oct. 19 presentation, Spitzer pointed out that the 2020 Census data showed that Districts 1 and 3, as drawn in 2019, needed to lose population, while Districts 2 and 5 “had to gain population,” to achieve that 10% threshold.
From 2010 to 2018, Spitzer noted, the county grew by less than 5,000 people per year. Then, he said, from 2018 to 2020, “The population grew twice as fast as it did in the years prior to that time.”
The county’s population in 2010 was about 380,000, he added. The 2020 Census put the figure at approximately 434,000, he told the board.
The largest degree of deviation between the districts, based on the Census data, was 14.2%, according to a county staff memo.
Spitzer also talked of small changes that he and his team had proposed in their map — “housekeeping adjustments,” he called them — because of the Census information related to residential blocks. He showed the board members several examples of those situations. The map the commission approved in 2019 incorporated voting precinct lines, he explained.
However, he added that his team had proposed keeping other small areas in District 2 “that jut out into District 1” because the affected residents were unable to vote for a commissioner during the November 2020 election.
That last general election was the first in which the Single-Member Districts Sarasota County Charter amendment was in effect since its passage by voters in November 2018. That amendment allows citizens to vote only for a candidate for the commissioner who lives in the same district in which they live.
Along with the District 2 seat, voters in District 4 will choose a new commissioner in 2022. Board Chair Maio, who represents District 4, will be term-limited in 2022.
As the commissioners engaged in their discussion on Oct. 19, at several points they also talked of the need to eliminate specific publicly-submitted maps because those versions would keep North Sarasota voters from casting ballots for a commissioner in 2022.
At one point on Oct. 19, Commissioner Detert asked for assurance from Spitzer that the maps the board was considering for advertisement would enable the citizens in the predominantly African American community of Newtown to vote in 2022, as they were moved into District 2 during the 2019 process.
Spitzer told her that the largest percentage of African American residents — 10.4% — would remain in District 2 in the proposed map he and his team had presented to the board.
In a subsequent interview with the News Leader, R.N. Collins — the Sarasota resident who addressed the board on Oct. 19 — asserted that Goodrich Map 2 would keep 20% of the Newtown voters from casting ballots again in 2022, just as they were unable to vote in 2020, following the 2019 redistricting initiative.
For that matter, Collins said, Spitzer’s Alternative 1-A map, with the State Road 72 boundary for District 1, would disenfranchise approximately 1,000 voters in Saddle Creek and Myakka Valley Ranches.
In response to a News Leader question about Collins’ finding with his second map, attorney Goodrich wrote in his Oct. 28 email, “I‘m not sure that’s the case. In any event, the map was certainly not drawn with that in mind. The mindset was simply to draw a map that makes sense, and which may restore balance to the Commission.”