Consultant was in charge of controversial 2019 initiative
The Tallahassee consultant whose redrawing of Sarasota County Commission district boundaries in 2019 generated controversy has won another county contract — this time, to analyze the new Census data for the county, with the potential of once again modifying the districts, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.
If the data dictate redistricting, the latest contract with Kurt Spitzer & Associates shows, then Spitzer would be authorized to draw new maps.
In that case, the contract does require him to “[p]repare and present final map(s) based on input received at Commission meeting.”
However, the News Leader has found nothing in the contract that calls for public participation in the process. During the 2019 initiative, Commissioner Nancy Detert stressed that the public would be allowed to submit maps that the board would consider; yet, the information necessary for that process never was released to the public, residents told the News Leader after failed efforts to obtain it from county administrative staff.
Nonetheless, the revised district map the commissioners ultimately approved was based on one submitted under a false name. The individual who provided it to county representatives later was identified as Robert Waechter of Siesta Key, a former chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota County who pleaded guilty in 2013 to a charge related to his theft of the identity of another Siesta Key resident who planned to run as a Republican for a County Commission seat in 2014.
The first-degree misdemeanor charge was Fraudulent Use/Possession of ID of Another Person to Harass.
Waechter had contributed to Democratic candidates’ campaigns in the resident’s name, which she argued was an effort to smear her reputation and diminish her chances in the 2014 campaign. She lost out to Commissioner Alan Maio in the Republican Primary that year.
Although the County Commission conducted two regular meetings this week — the first since the board went on its annual four-week summer break — none of the commissioners brought up the hiring of Spitzer or the potential of redistricting once again.
After receiving a copy of the Spitzer & Associates contract — and related county staff emails — through a public records request, the News Leader emailed all the county commissioners late in the afternoon of Aug. 25 to ask why they had not made the public aware of this new process. The publication also asked whether they plan to provide the public an opportunity to participate in it.
As of the deadline for this week’s issue, the News Leader had received no responses.
The commissioners will hold their final budget workshop today, Aug. 27. Therefore, it is possible the topic will come up during those discussions.
When the News Leader asked for a county comment on why no public discussion of the hiring of Spitzer had taken place, Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant provided the following statement late on the afternoon of Aug. 26: “County staff have repeatedly presented to the [commission] about its Policy Agenda Item in the County’s 2021 Strategic Plan relating to Post Census Redistricting and Single Member District Review. Updates on this item are provided to the Board through monthly written reports and publicly at Commission meetings on a quarterly basis. During these public updates, staff has discussed hiring a consultant to review census information multiple times.
“Sarasota County has selected a consultant to evaluate the results of the 2020 Census data to determine if district populations are within acceptable deviation thresholds. Kurt Spitzer and Associates, who was also used during the 2020 redistricting assessment efforts, has considerable familiarity with the state requirements related to the census and the county. The findings will be presented to the County Commission prior to the end of the calendar year,” the statement added.
Steps to hire Spitzer again
In a July 30 email to Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department (PDS), and Michele Norton, assistant director of PDS, Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson wrote, “We are in the process of securing Kurt Spitzer to perform the work to update our districts for the 2020 Census. Since this is fairly routine,” Johnson added, “we want to run this through PDS as a work assignment. I will stay as the main point of contact with the consultant.”
Then Johnson outlined what he called the necessary steps to ensure the hiring of Kurt Spitzer and Associates (KSA):
1. “An email to [County Administrator] Jonathan [Lewis] from Matt needs to be sent asking for him to waive the procurement process under the Management Services category.”
2. “A Waiver Request Form [in a county software system] has to be filled out and submitted to Procurement. I have attached a copy of the last one we did for KSA and made a couple minor edits to update it. [Y]ou can use the same information for the new waiver.”
Johnson added, “If we could complete this next week it would be appreciated. If you have any questions please let me know.”
On Aug. 3, Osterhoudt emailed Lewis: “We would like to proceed with contracting with Kurt Spitzer [&] 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.”
Osterhoudt added, “Your approval of the waiver is requested.”
Later that day, Lewis wrote back: “Matt, Approved conditioned upon [Procurement] office review.”
The next day, Aug. 4, Jennifer Slusarz, the county’s Procurement Official, emailed Osterhoudt and Johnson, noting that the waiver was “in Procurement’s queue and will be reviewed today.”
Then, on Aug. 5, Osterhoudt wrote Johnson, “Confirmation of the waiver approval is attached.”
That document showed the estimated expense for hiring Kurt Spitzer and Associates was $50,000. The county paid Spitzer $38,750 for his work in 2019, after the majority of the county commissioners agreed that new district boundaries should be implemented prior to the 2020 General Election, when three seats were up for election.
On Friday, Aug. 13, following the U.S. Census Bureau’s release of county data, Tamara Schells, a county planner and demographer, emailed county Planning and Development Services senior staff — including Osterhoudt — a graphic showing changes in population for the county as a whole, as well as for the Cities of North Port, Sarasota and Venice and for the Town of Longboat Key.
The 2020 Census showed the number of county residents had climbed 14.4% since 2010, to 434,006. “More than half of the County’s growth occurred in the unincorporated area,” the graphic said.
The final contract for Spitzer, which Johnson included in email exchanges after Spitzer suggested tweaks, calls for Spitzer to complete the following by Oct. 13:
- 1. “Layer (add) the 2020 census information onto the current district boundaries and assist in determining whether it is necessary to adjust the district boundaries to make them legally sufficient based on common redistricting principles.Prepare map(s) showing population, race and ethnicity for each district. In the event no adjustments are required for the current district boundaries by the County, redescribe the boundaries in accordance with current census blocks and voter precincts, if requested by the County. Deliver all files and maps to County staff.
- 2. “Confer as necessary with designated County staff, counsel and other appropriate County officials concerning the current maps and potential alternatives thereto.
- 3. “Confer with Commissioners on an individual basis via telephone or an on-line mechanism, as requested by County, to ascertain their preferences concerning adjustments to current BCC district boundaries, if adjustments are necessary.”
For those tasks, the contract says, Spitzer will receive $13,650.
Task No. 4 in the contract notes, “Prepare Alternative Maps — Based on the information gathered from Tasks 1 through 3 (above) and if necessary due to population imbalances, prepare two alternative maps (Alternatives #1 and #2) that conform to the County’s criteria, are legally sufficient and based on generally accepted redistricting principles.”
Afterward, Spitzer would be asked to attend one County Commission meeting “to present alternative maps and respond to questions concerning the maps and the redistricting process.”
If alternative maps are requested, the contract continues, Tasks 4-9 would be completed for a fixed fee of $7,000.
The contract also lays out payments for “additional services,” as needed.
Ron Collins, a Sarasota resident who is an economist with expertise in demographics analysis and associated software programs, provided the News Leader with a chart showing that the biggest deviation in population between any two districts is 14%. Based on a U.S. Supreme Court decision, redistricting is required when a deviation exceeds 10%, as then-Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out during the 2019 redistricting process.
Ideally, with the new population total for the county, each district should have 86,801 residents. District 2 would be short of that figure by 6,916, Collins’ calculations show. District 5 — Commissioner Ron Cutsinger’s district — would miss the mark by 3,196 people.
The 2019 initiative
In late February 2019, Commissioner Detert called for an analysis of the districts’ population because of growth, especially in South County, since the 2010 Census data was used to draw the boundaries.
Because the nonprofit Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE) had won voter approval in November 2018 for a switch to a Single-Member Districts voting system beginning in 2020, Detert and three of her board colleagues agreed that the research was necessary. Commissioner Christian Ziegler maintained the stance that the board should wait until after the 2020 Census data was released.
With Single-Member Districts having become part of the Sarasota County Charter as a result of the 2018 referendum, voters would be able to cast ballots just for County Commission candidates living in the same districts in which those voters live. Previously, the commissioners had been elected countywide.
Detert, especially, argued that with each commissioner answering to a single district, the county population should be divided as equally as possible among the five districts.
Thus, county staff ended up hiring Spitzer to handle the process, which resulted in a November 2019 vote to implement new district maps.
In late April of this year, Detert suggested that redistricting after receipt of the 2020 Census data most likely would not be necessary, as a result of the 2019 undertaking. “Our numbers are probably going to be more accurate than [those of] the Census,” she said during an April 20 board discussion.
Yet, during public hearings in 2019, and through communications with board members and staff, Sarasota resident Collins, with his expertise in demographics, stressed that the data Spitzer was using to draw the new districts was flawed. Collins cited numerous errors to the commissioners. However, Spitzer asserted that the district maps he had created, with information provided by the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR), were accurate.
During those hearings, numerous county residents charged that the board’s redistricting effort was a ruse to try to ensure the re-election of Commissioner Michael Moran. Those allegations grew more contentious after the District 1 map was modified to remove most of the traditionally African American community of Newtown, in Sarasota, to Commissioner Ziegler’s District 2. Speakers pointed out that Newtown voters traditionally support Democrats.
Even with that shift of Newtown, Moran defeated his Republican Primary opponent, Mike Hutchinson, by just 365 votes, the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office records show.