Regular commission meeting will be in downtown Sarasota
(Editor’s note: Because of recurring problems with a link to the block data Spitzer & Associates provided county staff in early August, we added to this article images of the data for the blocks in Districts 1, 2 and 4 early on the afternoon of Sept. 6.)
The Sarasota County Commission is scheduled to see proposed new district maps on Wednesday, Sept. 11, when it conducts a regular meeting in downtown Sarasota, county staff told The Sarasota News Leader this week.
The agenda was not available prior to the News Leader’s publication deadline, but the meeting is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. at the County Administration Center, which is located at 1660 Ringling Blvd.
Additionally, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester confirmed with staff that, as of late afternoon on Sept. 4, three of the commissioners — Charles Hines, Nancy Detert and Christian Ziegler — have scheduled one-on-one telephone conversations with the consultant who is handling the redistricting initiative for the county, Kurt Spitzer of Tallahassee.
Staff told Winchester that each commissioner was offered the opportunity to speak by telephone with Spitzer as he works on the maps.
Community residents opposed to the redrawing of the district boundaries before the end of this year have stressed their concerns about language in the consultant’s contract regarding discussions with individual board members.
(County staff approved the contract in late June. And while the contract is with Kurt Spitzer & Associates, the News Leader learned this week that Spitzer may have no “associates.”
(On Sept. 4, when the News Leader tried calling Spitzer at the phone number listed for a website associated with his firm, the News Leader reached Danielle Foss Hopkins, CEO and president of Association Management Professionals LLC in Tallahassee. She said Spitzer used to work out of her office, but he retired in July 2018.
(When the News Leader responded that Spitzer just appeared before the County Commission last week under contract to the county, Hopkins explained that Spitzer has been working out of his home.
(Spitzer did not respond to repeated News Leader attempts to reach him this week.)
Under the Task 2 actions Spitzer outlined in June in his Proposal to Provide Services Updating the 2010 Decennial Census for the County Commission, No. 2 said, “Meet with each Commissioner on an individual basis to ascertain their preferences concerning adjustments to [County Commission] district boundaries.”
No. 1 on the list called for conferring “as necessary with designated staff, counsel and other appropriate officials concerning the existing maps and potential alternatives thereto.”
No. 3 called for the preparation of alternative maps “that conform to the County’s criteria and are determined by the County to be legally sufficient.”
Pointing to the wording in No. 2, Kindra Muntz, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE), issued the following statement to the News Leader on Sept. 4 on behalf of the nonprofit: “How can Commissioner Detert claim the [redistricting] process will be transparent and fair, when she and other Commissioners made a show at the August 27th County Commission meeting of emphasizing that Mr. Spitzer had NO contact with them, knowing full well that their contract with Mr. Spitzer allows him to meet one-on-one behind closed doors with EACH of them AFTER he creates his draft maps, to make sure each Commissioner’s needs are met.”
Both Detert and Commissioner Michael Moran had exchanges with Spitzer during the board’s regular meeting on Aug. 27. Each sought Spitzer’s public assurances that they had not had any contact with him prior to that day.
Although Spitzer did say that he had talked in person with Detert when she was still serving in the Florida Senate, he noted that the last occasion for such a conversation was three or four years ago.
Detert never acknowledged that she had had any conversation with him, even while she was a state senator.
Without knowledge of the scheduled telephone conversations between the three commissioners and Spitzer, Sarasota community organizer Gabriel Hament told the News Leader in a Sept. 3, email, “Unless the County Commission immediately (1) adopts a local ordinance equivalent to the Fair Districts amendment to the Florida Constitution and (2) strikes the secret meeting clause from Spitzer’s contract, Sarasota County citizens cannot trust the [redistricting] process.”
Approved by voters on Nov. 2, 2010, the Fair Districts amendments “were intended to prevent legislators from drawing lines favoring political parties or incumbents, [which had been] the longstanding practice by the ruling parties in the Legislature — Democrats, then Republicans — of creating as many voter-friendly districts for their candidates as possible,” Common Cause of Florida explains on its website.
The deliverables and the payments
Spitzer’s Task 1 schedule, outlined in his June proposal to county staff, called for all of his population files “and map” to be delivered to staff “no later than July 31, 2019.”
His proposal also said he would “present map and data to the BCC [Board of County Commissioners] no later than August 28, 2019.”
The commission began its annual summer recess in the latter part of July. Its first regular meeting following that break was on Aug. 27.
Spitzer’s quoted fee for completing Task 1 was $16,000. County Administrator Jonathan Lewis authorized the expense on a no-bid waiver to facilitate “the timely collection of data and information necessary to maintain the schedule associated with this project.”
Both state law and the Sarasota County Charter require that the redistricting be completed by Dec. 31.
The contract estimated the total county expense for hiring Spitzer would be no higher than $50,000.
Along with the compilation of the population data, Spitzer wrote in his proposal that he would conduct meetings in each commission district “to explain the redistricting process, facilitate discussion and receive input …”
As of the deadline for the News Leader’s publication this week, staff of the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court had not responded to a public records request asking how much Spitzer has been paid to date.
The Clerk’s Office handles such payments under the provisions of the Florida Statutes.
In her Sept. 4 statement to the News Leader on behalf of SAFE, Muntz wrote, “The Commissioners should just redistrict once in 2021, when they are required to so do after the 2020 census, and save the $50,000 they are planning to spend for their own interests this year for projects Sarasota County really needs, like infrastructure improvement, red tide research or affordable housing.”
A call to action and a response
Detert was the commissioner who first called for county staff to research the potential of redistricting this year, saying she believed population growth had put the five districts out of balance.
Although county staff research via a software system called ESRI did not determine significant imbalances, Spitzer told the commissioners on Aug. 27 that the climb in population in District 5 — which includes part of North Port — and the decline in the number of residents in District 2 — which includes part of the City of Sarasota, St. Armands Key and the Town of Longboat Key — led to a difference of 12.26 percentage points between those two districts.
Spitzer said he used data compiled by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BEBR) of the University of Florida, as well as information from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office, to arrive at his figures. He called BEBR’s population reports “the gold standard.”
In recent weeks, community organizer Hament of Sarasota, especially, has raised concerns about Detert’s determination to draw new district lines this year, instead of waiting for the 2020 Census results.
Basing his comments to the News Leader on research he had undertaken — including his review of reporting by the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald, along with information from the Ballotpedia website — he wrote in his Sept. 3, email, “Detert has a history of drawing maps that benefit her re-election prospects. In 2011, Nancy Detert was not only a member of the State Senate, but also sat on the Reapportionment Committee and was intimately involved in a sham public input process manipulated by partisan operatives. The result: illegal, unconstitutional gerrymandered state senate and US Congressional districts and $11 million in legal fees shamelessly defending the rigged maps.”
Hament added, “With no safeguards against gerrymandering at the local level, this process won’t be comparable to what Detert oversaw as a State Senator. It will be worse.”
During public comments on Aug. 27, many of the 16 speakers criticized the commissioners for trying to protect the expected re-election efforts of Detert and Moran, both of whom are eligible to seek second terms after initially winning their seats in November 2016.
Detert has confirmed her plans for a re-election campaign. Moran has made no public announcement, to theNews Leader’s knowledge.
A number of speakers who addressed the commission on Aug. 27 emphasized that if county voters had not approved a Single-Member District system for electing the board members, beginning in 2020, the commissioners would not have called for redrawing the boundary lines this year.
The Single-Member District Sarasota County Charter amendment that won approval of almost 60% of the voters in November 2018 allows a voter to cast a ballot just for a County Commission candidate who lives in the same district as the voter.
Previously — except for a brief time in the early 1990s — a voter could cast a ballot in each race for a commission seat, regardless of where the voter or candidate lived.
In late August 2018, Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck represented SAFE in a presentation before the commission, in preparation for the board’s taking a required formal vote to put the Single-Member District question on the November 2018 ballot. Lobeck pointed out that the Single-Member District system was implemented in 1992. However, he said, developers became so unhappy with the situation, they worked behind the scenes to ensure countywide commission representation was reinstituted in 1994.
Advocates for the Single-Member District system contend that it will lead to better representation for constituents at the same time it cuts expenses associated with countywide races.
A number of them also have indicated their hopes that the change would enable Democrats to be elected to the County Commission for the first time in 50 years.
In her Sept. 4 statement to the News Leader, Muntz of SAFE wrote of the redistricting effort the commission began earlier this year, “What a sham! This is the perfect setup for partisan gerrymandering. Enough is enough with this fake process. Stop the 2019 redistricting or boot them out!”
Conversely, commissioners and their supporters have maintained that the Single-Member District system is the reason they need to redraw the boundaries before the 2020 election. They argue that the constituent count for each board member should be as equal as possible.
They also have insisted that the Single-Member District system will lead to poor representation for county residents as a whole, as each board member would be anticipated to look out for the interests of his or her district as a top priority.
About those maps …
During the Aug. 27 commission discussion about redistricting, Detert proposed that members of the public offer maps, in addition to those Spitzer will deliver to the board.
In response to another News Leader question this week, Media Relations Officer Winchester pointed out that detailed block figures needed for that process were contained in the backup agenda material for the Aug. 27 meeting.
The data was in an Aug. 2 memorandum from Spitzer to the County Commission.
County staff also noted that the block data is available through public records requests.
In his Aug. 2 memorandum about the methodology he used to calculate updated population figures, Spitzer provided lists of blocks with “30+ Growth by District.”
Spitzer wrote the following about his methodology in determining the block figures: “The general approach to the project was to begin with population data for each census block from the most recent (2010) decennial census, modify that information by the proportionate increase in residential housing units within each census block for the period 2010 through 2018, and then control (adjust) that information by the official population estimates provided by the Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR) at the University of Florida for each city and the unincorporated area in Sarasota County.”
In regard to the drawing of the maps, Kafi Benz, president of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), wrote the News Leader in a Sept. 3 email, “Using total population in order to avoid any perception of gerrymandering, compact districts should be drawn to equal populations that are rational and not invidiously discriminatory. Except for the geographical limitations presented by the isolation of Longboat Key making it likely a rational exception, I would recommend that the municipalities be divided so as to be included in at least two districts.”
She added, “It will be important for citizens to scrutinize the proposed districts carefully before they are established by the commission and, to point out and provide suggestions to correct any perceived deviations from that objective.”