Tallahassee firm hired as consultant for County Commission redistricting initiative

President of Kurt Spitzer & Associates formerly was executive director of Florida Association of Counties

This is the graphic the County Commission considered in June 2011 before redrawing the districts, which remain in effect. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Sarasota County has hired a Tallahassee firm to undertake the preliminary work for the redistricting of the five County Commission districts.

The estimated total expense of the contract with Kurt Spitzer & Associates is $50,000, according to a county Procurement Department document. That document adds that the price “is consistent with market comparables.”

In late May, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis indicated to the commissioners that, based on research staff had undertaken, he felt that a firm could be hired for a sum less than the $100,000-plus threshold that requires board approval.

Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson emailed Lewis on June 20 to ask for Lewis’ approval of the waiver of the competitive bid process to hire Kurt Spitzer & Associates. Lewis affirmed that approval in a June 21 email.

The Procurement document indicated that the waiver was necessary to allow “for the timely collection of data and information necessary to maintain the schedule associated with this project.”

Under the guidelines of the Florida Statutes, the County Commission will have to complete the redistricting before the end of this year. County Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told The Sarasota News Leader this week that an update on Kurt Spitzer & Associates’ efforts is expected to be presented to the County Commission during one of the board’s regular meetings in late August.

The commission officially began its summer recess on July 22 and will not return until Aug. 19. Its first regular meeting after the break will be on Aug. 27.

The company’s proposal called for completing what it calls its “Task 1” schedule by July 31, and the fee for that work is $16,000, the Procurement document says.

According to the proposal the firm sent to the county, Task 1 covers the development and delivery of 2018 population estimates and creation of a “heat map” showing the growth from 2010 to 2018 by block.

Among the data, the proposal says, will be the average population in each district, the actual population count and the deviation from the mean. The information for each district also will include the breakdown for white, black and Hispanic residents, plus the percentage of each, the proposal notes.

The “target for population equality between each district should be identified,” the proposal continues. “A typical target is not more than 3% over or under the average population.”

This is a section of the Procurement Department waiver form regarding the hiring of Kurt Spitzer & Associates. Image courtesy Sarasota County

According to the Procurement document, Kurt Spitzer & Associates will update “the 2010 Decennial Census” through meetings with county staff, “developing data to be used for the project, updating census data on existing [Geographical Information System] GIS information; preparing map and presenting map and data to Sarasota County Commission.”

However, when the commissioners voted 4-0 on May 22 to undertake redistricting, Commissioner Nancy Detert was adamant that the board members themselves would draw the new districts in a public setting. She did suggest that county staff members and the public could propose maps to the commissioners.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler was absent when the vote was taken.

“Based on the results of Task 1,” the proposal points out, “the County may wish to consider alternatives to the existing BCC District boundaries.”

If staff allows the firm to proceed with Task 2, the proposal continues, then representatives of Spitzer & Associates could meet with each commissioner one-on-one to ascertain the board members’ “preferences concerning adjustments to BCC district boundaries.”

Setting the stage

Commissioner Nancy Detert listens to a speaker on Dec. 12, 2018. File photo

Detert was the board member who first broached the idea of creating new district boundaries before the 2020 elections, in which three commission seats will be on the ballot. Both she and Commissioner Michael Moran are eligible to seek second terms. Chair Charles Hines, who first took office in November 2012, will have to step down in 2020 because of term limits.

Citing growth that has taken place in the county since 2010, Detert talked of the population counts being “out of whack” in the five districts.

She and her colleagues also have discussed the fact that, in November 2018, county voters approved an amendment to the County Charter calling for the implementation of Single-Member Districts. Previously, every registered county voter could cast a ballot in each County Commission race on a ballot. Starting in 2020, a voter may cast a ballot just for a candidate who lives in the same district as the voter.

Detert has talked of potential legal repercussions against the county if the board kept the current districts, because of population imbalance. However, critics of early redistricting have cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said as long as the population figures are within 10% of each other, the balance is sufficient for adequate voter representation.

County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht told the commissioners on May 22 that the 10% analysis is one “that courts use generally when there’s a legal challenge to a redistricting plan”; it regards the One Person/One Vote Rule. However, he added, a court could be persuaded by evidence in a particular case that variations greater than 10% are constitutional.

The 10% figure, Elbrecht further noted, is “not something that’s contained in the [Florida] Statute [on redistricting by county commissions].”

Critics of redistricting prior to the release of results of the 2020 Census also cite the expense to county taxpayers for the board members to pursue the process this year and then again in 2021, which will be required by law.

Spitzer & Associates and the contract

Kurt Spitzer. Image from his LinkedIn account

Kurt Spitzer’s LinkedIn account says he has been president of his eponymous firm since 1989. The account points out that the firm utilizes his more than 40 years of experience “with Florida state and local governments to provide services in three primary areas: Legislative and agency relations; consulting services for city/county charters; and, redistricting services for cities, counties and school boards.”

Spitzer also is the former executive director of the Florida Association of Counties. His LinkedIn account says he held that position from 1979 to 1989.

The Sarasota News Leader was unable to find a website for the firm or an official Facebook page for it.

The Spitzer & Associates proposal to the county says it will be assisted in its efforts by the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR), which “provides an extensive range of demographic services for state and local governments throughout Florida …”
BEBR produces Florida’s “official state and local population estimates and projections,” the proposal adds.

On May 7, the commissioners directed County Administrator Lewis to use a feature of a software system already available to staff — Esri — to determine the best possible estimate of the population in each district.

A May 15 memo to the board, provided the following figures:

  • District 1 — 81,106.
  • District 2 — 79,915.
  • District 3 — 87,130.
  • District 4 — 80,685.
  • District 5 — 87,525.

“In addition to population,” the Kurt Spitzer & Associates proposal notes, “commonly used criteria include race, age, significant man-made and/or natural boundaries, city boundaries, neighborhoods, relative compactness of Commission district shape, recognition of existing Commission boundaries, etc.”

However, Detert made it clear in early redistricting discussions with her colleagues that neither she nor Commissioner Moran could be certain of continuing to reside in the district each represents, after the new boundaries are drawn.

Detert, who lives in Venice, represents District 3. Moran, who is a Sarasota resident, resides in District 1. Hines represents District 5.

As of the afternoon of July 24, neither Detert nor Moran had filed for re-election, Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office records show.

Venice Mayor John Holic. Image from the City of Venice website

Two candidates have filed for District 3: Democrat Cory Hutchinson and Republican Christopher B. Hanks, both of North Port. Venice Mayor John Holic is seeking the District 5 seat. He has filed with no party affiliation.

Hutchinson has been a career adviser for the Sarasota County School District since August 2017. He was a candidate for the North Port City Commission in 2016.

In 2016, Hanks was elected to the District 2 seat on the North Port City Commission.

The Spitzer & Associates proposal also calls for the project team to modify the 2010 Census data “by the proportional changes in residential housing information obtained from the Property Appraiser for the period 2010 to 2018.”

Then the updated data would be layered on the county’s existing information provided by its Geographical Information System software.

“The County should be aware that the smallest unit of available population data from the Bureau of the Census is ‘census blocks,’” the proposal explains. “Blocks are of widely variable shapes, sizes and population counts. They may or may not follow the boundaries of existing Commission districts. Likewise, they may or may not follow the boundaries of cities within the County.”

The proposal also indicates a willingness to hold “community meetings in each of the five Commissioner districts.” That section refers to presentations of the existing district maps and two alternatives reflecting new boundaries. Company representatives would “facilitate discussion” and accept public comments during those meetings, the proposal adds.