Document underscored city leaders’ concerns about potential for Newtown voters to be eliminated from participation in 2020 election for District 1 seat
On a unanimous vote on Nov. 18, the Sarasota City Commission adopted a resolution formally declaring “its opposition to current plans for redistricting in Sarasota County in the year 2019.”
Formally, the resolution urged the County Commission “to abandon” plans to consider either of the two proposed maps that the County Commission approved for public advertisement for a special meeting and public hearing on Nov. 19. (On Oct. 30, Commissioners Nancy Detert, Alan Maio and Michael Moran voted in favor of the advertisement; Commissioners Charles Hines and Christian Ziegler opposed the action.)
After the Nov. 18 City Commission vote, Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie volunteered to present the resolution to the County Commission during the Nov. 19 hearing. (See the related story in this issue.)
Additionally, at the request of Commissioner Willie Shaw, a copy of the resolution was to be hand-delivered to county staff on the afternoon of Nov. 18, after the City Commission concluded the afternoon portion of its regular meeting.
Further, at the suggestion of Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch, a copy of the document was to be emailed to the County Commission, as well, on Nov. 18.
During their regular meeting on Nov. 4, at Shaw’s request, the city commissioners directed City Attorney Robert Fournier to draft the resolution. Shaw raised the issue of the potential shift of the historically African American community of Newtown from County Commission District 1 to District 2 if the map dubbed Alternative 4.1 won County Commission approval. That shift would force Newtown residents to wait until the 2022 election to participate in another County Commission election.
Moreover, it would prevent former Sarasota Mayor and City Commissioner Fredd Atkins — “whose current residence is in existing County Commission District 1,” the city resolution pointed out — from continuing his campaign as a Democrat for the District 1 seat.
As a result of the passage of the Single-Member Districts Sarasota County Charter amendment in November 2018, only voters who reside in the same district as a candidate may participate in an election for that district seat. Previously, all citizens who went to the polls could vote for a candidate in each County Commission race on the ballot.
The District 1 seat held by Commissioner Moran is up for election in 2020, along with the seats for Districts 3 and 5.
The city resolution also said, “While it is acknowledged that, because of staggered terms, in any conversion from an at-large election system to single member districts, there will be voters who would have been able to vote in the next at large election, who will not be able to vote in the first district election cycle, it is incomprehensible how elected officials could deliberately cause this to happen unnecessarily to a community which for so long encountered such tremendous obstacles to voting, including but not limited to harassment, intimidation and economic reprisals. At best, adoption of the Alternative 4.1 plan and to a lesser extent the Alternative 2-A.1 [map], would exhibit a callous indifference to the historical treatment of African Americans with respect to the exercise of their voting rights; and at worst, would expose Commissioners voting to proceed to further allegations of voter suppression and racism and expose Sarasota County to potential legal action based on alleged constitutional and statutory violations.”
During the Oct. 30 County Commission meeting, speakers also pointed out that Alternative Map 2-A.1 would move the largest county precinct — 233 — into District 1, which most likely would shift that district from one with a majority of registered Democrats to one with a Republican majority. A number of Newtown residents reminded the county commissioners that the African American community’s voters are predominantly registered Democrats; yet, all the county commissioners are Republicans.
More details of the City Commission’s view
In its introductory clauses, the City Commission resolution pointed out that the Single-Member Districts question on the Nov. 6, 2018 General Election ballot “did not address the issues of district boundaries and equal populations among the proposed five single member districts …”
It added that the districts the County Commission created in June 2011 — which were drawn on the basis of data in the 2010 Census — were “‘residence districts’ rather than ‘election districts’ because even when all County Commissioners are elected at large, the Florida Constitution requires that counties be divided into no less than five residence districts with one Commissioner residing in each of the districts …”
Moreover, the City Commission resolution pointed to the likelihood that the five County Commission districts would have to be changed again after the 2020 Census results have been released.
However, in late August, County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht cited a 1974 opinion of the U.S. Attorney General in explaining that it would not be imperative for the county board to redistrict again in 2021. The key, Elbrecht said, would be whether the 2020 Census data showed that the population counts had not changed substantially among the districts, if the lines were redrawn this year.
Under Florida law, the County Commission must conclude redistricting before the end of this year or wait until after the 2020 Census results have been released. All the county commissioners except Christian Ziegler have maintained that redistricting is imperative this year because of population growth in South County and the passage of the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment.
During an Oct. 30 presentation, the redistricting consultant county staff hired — Kurt Spitzer of Tallahassee — said refinement of the original figures he gave county staff in August showed that the difference between the district with the smallest population and the one with the largest was 13.4 percentage points. Previously, he had asserted that it was 12.26 percentage points.
Chair Charles Hines, especially, has cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to point out that drawing new lines is necessary to ensure that a nearly equal number of residents is represented by each county commissioner. However, the 2016 case on which he has based his statements — Evenwel v. Abbott — involved a Texas legislative redistricting challenge.
Referring to the potential elimination of Newtown in the 2020 election for the County Commission District 1 seat, the City Commission resolution also referred to the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which “states that ‘the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude …’”
Additionally, the resolution pointed out that the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965 “was intended to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment and prohibits all voting practices and procedures that can be shown to result in a denial or abridgement of the right to vote on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group.”
Moreover, the resolution said, “In the absence of a legal mandate for redistricting in 2019, the effort is an unnecessary waste of time and money.”