With conflict of interest waiver approved, GrayRobinson law firm to represent Sarasota County and three commissioners in redistricting case

Amended complaint says County Commission’s approval of new district lines in 2019 also violated the Florida Constitution

County Attorney Frederick ‘Rick’ Elbrecht. Fileimage

With no comments this week, the Sarasota County Commission voted unanimously to approve a waiver of conflicts with the GrayRobinson law firm so that firm can represent the county in a redistricting lawsuit filed in December 2019.

During the board’s regular meeting on Jan. 14, in Venice, County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht explained why the waiver was necessary.

“GrayRobinson is a large firm. They have two other clients that could have potential legal claims with the county unrelated to redistricting,” he said. One of those clients is involved in a condemnation matter with the county, he continued; the other leases county property. “Neither of those matters is currently in litigation.”

Moreover, Elbrecht continued, “None of the attorneys working with those matters would be involved in any way with the redistricting case.”

GrayRobinson representatives have told him that those situations “would not affect their ability to provide competent and diligent representation to the county,” Elbrecht explained. Further, American Bar Association rules allow representation in such circumstances, he said, “with the parties’ consent.”

Following Elbrecht’s remarks, Commissioner Charles Hines made the motion to approve the waiver, and Commissioner Alan Maio seconded it.

The action came less than a week after an amended version of the redistricting lawsuit was filed on Jan. 10 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, in Tampa. Along with alleging that the redrawing of County Commission district lines in 2019 was a violation of the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Voting Rights Act, the amended complaint contends that the County Commission’s action also violates Article III, Section 21 of the Florida Constitution. That section “prohibits state legislative districts from being ‘drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent,’” the amended lawsuit says. “This constitutional provision further prohibits districts from being ‘drawn with the intent or result of denying or abridging the equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process or to diminish their ability to elect representatives of their choice,’” the complaint adds.

The three named plaintiffs of the class action suit are all residents of Newtown, the traditionally African-American community in North Sarasota. In voting on Nov. 19, 2019 to approve new district lines, the lawsuit argues, Commissioners Nancy Detert, Alan Maio and Michael Moran disenfranchised Newtown’s voters by moving them into District 2.

This is a closeup of Newtown in Map 4.1. which the County Commission adopted on Nov. 19, 2019. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Commissioners Charles Hines and Christian Ziegler voted against the map with the new districts. Ziegler has been outspoken about the need to wait until after the 2020 Census data becomes available before redrawing the lines. Hines indicated his disapproval of the map that moved Newtown.

Previously, Newtown was in District 1, whose seat Moran won in 2016.

Because Sarasota County voters in 2018 approved the implementation of a Single-Member Districts County Charter amendment, Newtown voters would be unable to participate in the 2020 election, when Moran is expected to seek re-election, opponents of the new district lines have pointed out.

Only citizens who live in the same district as candidates for that district seat can cast ballots for one of those candidates. Previously, all county voters were able to vote in every County Commission race on a General Election ballot.

Additionally, all five of the county commissioners are Republicans, whereas Newtown voters also have been more likely to vote for Democratic candidates, members of the public stressed in comments to the commissioners last year.

Prior to the redistricting vote in November 2019, former Sarasota Mayor and City Commissioner Fredd Atkins filed as a Democrat to seek the District 1 seat. He also ran in 2016, losing to Moran in the General Election.

Atkins is one of the three named plaintiffs in the redistricting lawsuit. The other two are Newtown residents Mary Mack and Michael White.

More details of the lawsuit and its effects

The amended complaint asks the federal court to rule that the County Commission’s redistricting plan “has the purpose and effect of denying or abridging the right of African-American voters in Newtown to effectively participate in the political process”; declare that the redistricting plan “reflects a racial gerrymander in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution; declare that it violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act and the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; and declare that the redistricting violates the Florida Constitution.

The lawsuit also asks the court to prevent the use of the new districts in the 2020 election, prevent the County Commission from redistricting until after the 2020 Census figures have been determined, and extend the deadline for filing for the 2020 County Commission races.

This enlargement of the new districts map for the County Commission seats shows the cities of North Port and Venice. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Along with the District 1 seat, Commissioner Detert’s District 3 seat and Commissioner Hines’ District 5 seat are open this year. Detert already has announced her intent to run again. Members of the public also have argued that the new district lines favor her plans, as well as Moran’s, because most of the city of North Port was moved from District 3 to District 5. Detert is a Venice resident.

Hines will have to step down from the board because of term limits.

Even though the new district lines have been challenged, The Sarasota News Leader learned this week that the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office is working on moving precincts to the new districts in accord with the map approved last fall.

Rachel Denton, communications and voter outreach manager, told the News Leader in a Jan. 13 email, “Groups are added to existing precincts to accommodate the new BCC lines.”

Precincts are not being split up to create new ones, she pointed out.