With Waechter revealed as ‘Smith’ behind fourth proposed redistricting map, public outcry over County Commission initiative intensifies

A past chair of the county Republican Party, Waechter pleaded guilty in 2013 to using another Republican’s identity in an effort to counter her campaign for County Commission

(Editor’s note: This article was updated late in the morning of Oct. 18 to clarify a point about the Robert Waechter court case.)

The county Administration Center is located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota. File photo

Although an assistant Sarasota County administrator indicated on Oct. 7 that a special meeting on redistricting would be conducted next week, it turns out that the session has been set for 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 30, at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota.

That was the news county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester conveyed to The Sarasota News Leader on Monday.

The details went up the same day on the county’s webpage devoted to the County Commission’s plans to redraw the commission district boundaries before the end of the year.

In the meantime, public ire over the redistricting process has been stoked by the news that former Sarasota County Republican Party Chair Robert Waechter of Siesta Key drew a fourth map that the commissioners discussed last week.

In an Oct. 13 Sarasota Herald-Tribune article, reporter Zac Anderson revealed that he had tracked the submission of the so-called “Smith map” to Waechter.

In her Oct. 7 motion directing staff on next steps, Commissioner Nancy Detert asked the county’s redistricting consultant — Kurt Spitzer of Tallahassee — to tweak the Smith map, so it possibly could be considered during a public hearing on proposed new district lines. That hearing has been set for Nov. 5.

Instead of using his own name, Waechter had emailed the map to Assistant County Administrator Johnson, using the nom de plumeof Adam Smith, with an email address that had no indication it belonged to Waechter.

In Oct. 11 emails to the News Leader, Waechter also admitted that he had submitted the map. As Anderson reported, Waechter wrote that he took a map that Jono Miller of Sarasota had drawn “and refined it so that it was better balanced, as Mr. Spitzer’s numbers later verified.”

Waechter added in a separate email to the News Leader that he had not “planned on going public with this but I guess it’s ok now.”

Bob Waechter. File photo

In a third email, Waechter wrote, “As you likely are aware I have some experience with redistricting from 2010-11 and know what a balanced district is.”

He was referring to the last time the County Commission redrew the district boundaries, which occurred following the release of the 2010 Census data.

“I determined to not submit the map under my own name as that would have prejudiced any fair assessment of it,” Waechter added in the email. “The map I came up with is balanced, fair and, with some minor adjustments, meets the criteria set out by the [county commissioners] in their discussions.”

Waechter has been a staunch proponent of redrawing the district lines this year. He also pointed out to the News Leader this summer that county redistricting was undertaken numerous times in the past — between the decennial Census data reports — to rebalance the districts because of fast population growth.

Commissioner Nancy Detert was the board member who first broached the idea of redrawing the district lines this year, before the 2020 election. She and Commissioners Michael Moran, Alan Maio and Charles Hines contend that it is absolutely necessary for the population of each district to be as equal as possible, because of the Single-Member District Charter amendment. In 2020, a voter will be able to cast a ballot just for a commission candidate who lives in the same district as the voter. Previously, every voter could cast a ballot in each commission race, regardless of where the voter or candidates lived.

Only Commissioner Christian Ziegler has opposed redistricting this year, saying the board should wait until after the results of the 2020 Census.

This is the ‘Smith’ map that Robert Waechter submitted to county staff. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A criminal record

This is not the first time Waechter has assumed a different identity for a politically motivated act, though an earlier incident initially led to his being charged with a felony count.

In December 2012, Waechter was arrested by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office after an investigation revealed that he had purchased a gift card and used it in the name of Lourdes Ramirez — also of Siesta Key — to make contributions to Democratic candidates running in 2012 races. Ramirez, who is a Republican, has contended that the news of the contributions led to her being victimized in her 2014 campaign for the District 4 County Commission seat. She lost the Republican Primary to Alan Maio, who ended up winning the seat during the General Election.

Ramirez went to the Sheriff’s Office on Oct. 15, 2012 after she received a thank-you note for a donation to Sarasota Democrat Keith Fitzgerald’s congressional campaign. The Sheriff’s Office report said she advised an officer “she had never contributed to the Fitzgerald Campaign and felt someone had stolen her identity.” That launched the Sheriff’s Office’s investigation.

Waechter was arrested on Dec. 14, 2012, court records show. He originally was charged with a felony count of Criminal Use of Personal Identification Information.

Morgan Bentley. Contributed photo

Reading a prepared statement as part of his pleading guilty in December 2013 to a misdemeanor count, Waechter called his actions “a few moments of sophomoric hand-rubbing glee” that had cost him greatly. “I have embarrassed myself and I have caused great embarrassment to my family and friends,” he said.

Waechter not only had to make a public apology to Ramirez as part of his plea deal, but he also agreed to waive any right to petition to seal or expunge his criminal history, according to the Dec. 12, 2013 12th Judicial Circuit Court record.

Initial news media accounts reported that Waechter pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony count in the case. However, Watcher’s attorney, Morgan Bentley of Bentley & Burning in Sarasota, pointed out to the News Leader last year that that was incorrect.

A Corrected Judgment that Circuit Court Judge Donna Berlin signed on Sept. 18, 2017 indicates that earlier documentation regarding the plea could have been misleading. The Corrected Judgment shows the offense to which Waechter pleaded guilty was a first-degree misdemeanor: Fraudulent Use/Possession of ID of Another Person to Harass.

Waechter was ordered to serve three months of community control, perform 100 hours of community service and pay a $5,000 fine and court costs. He also was given two years of probation.

Additionally, in September 2013, Waechter was fined by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in connection with the series of fake campaign donations. The FEC notified the Sheriff’s Office on Sept. 17, 2013, that it had reached a $5,000 settlement with Waechter.

Increasing controversy

This week, JoAnne DeVries, chair of the Sarasota County Democratic Party, issued a statement about Waechter’s subterfuge regarding the “Smith map.”

DeVries pointed out that it was the only map submitted by any member of the public that the commissioners indicated they might consider, after the necessary population tweaks, along with the three alternative maps consultant Spitzer has proposed.

JoAnne DeVries. Photo from the Sarasota County Democratic Party website

“The revelations in Sunday’s Sarasota Herald Tribune article are not surprising,” DeVries wrote. “It was clear to anyone watching the last County Commission meeting that Commissioners Detert and Moran were working together to promote a new map. Simply glancing at the [Smith] map made it obvious why they were promoting it — it creates a very safe district for Commissioner Moran. The only outstanding question was who created the map and now we have confirmation that it’s their notorious operative, Bob Waechter. We hope the Sarasota community recognizes this for what it is. A rigged process orchestrated by Commissioner Detert for the benefit of Commissioner Moran. The Sarasota County Democratic Party is pleased to see it exposed. It’s up to all of us to hold them accountable.”

The seats held by Moran and Detert are up for election in 2016. Moran represents District 1, while Detert is the District 3 representative. Detert has announced that she plans to seek re-election. Moran thus far has been mum on the topic.

One candidate has filed for the District 1 seat — former Sarasota Mayor and City Commissioner Fredd Atkins, who is a Democrat. His candidacy could become moot, depending upon the final district lines the commissioners settle on — if they proceed with the process.

All the current commissioners are Republicans.

Among the votes that sparked ire against Commissioner Moran was his support of a construction and demolition waste-recycling center proposed for a county-owned parcel adjacent to the Celery Fields, the internationally renowned bird-watching area in the eastern part of the county. Moran and Commissioner Alan Maio cast votes for the project planned by Sarasota businessman James Gabbert. However, a board majority in August 2017 denied Gabbert’s rezoning petition for the property, so Gabbert withdrew an offer he had made on the parcel, as that offer was contingent upon board approval of the rezoning.

Gabbert had contributed to both Moran’s and Maio’s election campaigns, Sarasota County Supervisor of Election Office records show.

Another concerned resident — Lenore Karo of Sarasota — pointed out during the commission’s Oct. 7 discussion of redistricting that in Spitzer’s Alternative Map 1, Precinct 233 would remain in District 2. She is captain of that precinct, she said.

A graphic shows Precinct 233. Image from the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections website

Moving that precinct in Alternative Maps 2 and 3, Karo added, would lead to a majority of registered Republicans in District 1, which has more registered Democrats under the existing district alignment.

A News Leader check of the Supervisor of Elections Office’s website showed that, as of Oct. 17, the number of registered Republicans in Precinct 233 was 3,953; Democrats, 2,274; and other, 2,000 for a total of 8,227.

“I would like the record to reflect that you are aware of the partisan inequality implications of the map choices,” Karo told the commissioners on Oct. 7.

Another speaker, Tom Matrullo, also pointed out that he lives in Precinct 233. Thanks to Karo’s research, he continued, “Just now I learned … that Precinct 233 is the second-largest in terms of the gap between Republican and Democratic residents. So to move that particular district seems an interesting choice.”

Other voices of dissent

Among other outcries this week, following news of Waechter’s participation in the redistricting process, community organizer Gabriel Hament of Sarasota copied the county commissioners on an Oct. 13 email he sent to one of Commissioner Detert’s staunch supporters, Palmer Ranch developer Hugh Culverhouse Jr.

“It appears we are at the point where a formal investigation by the State Attorney and/or Florida Attorney General is appropriate,” Hament wrote Culverhouse, referring to the news about Waechter in the Herald-Tribune article.

Pat Rounds of Sarasota, another ardent opponent of redistricting — who has implored the commissioners during meetings and in correspondence over the past several months to stop their initiative — emailed them again this week, as well. She sent them a number of questions, seeking answers before the Oct. 30 special meeting. At the top of her list was the following: “The County acknowledges the contributions of 2000 residents in the input survey, but at your meeting on October 7th, you essentially dismissed the map preference selected by 90% of the respondents. Please account for this inconsistency.”

She was referring to a county survey seeking citizens’ views on the three maps that the consultant, Spitzer, had drawn and provided to the board members. Altogether, county staff told the News Leader, 2,083 surveys were completed, and 89.25% of the respondents expressed a preference for the map dubbed Alternative 1, which would maintain the Democratic voter majority in District 1.

The Sarasota County Democratic Party and the Democratic Club of Sarasota had encouraged the public to vote for Alternative 1 before the survey period ended.

This is the redistricting Alternative 1 map proposed by Kurt Spitzer & Associates. It won support from 89.25% of respondents to a county survey. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Rounds further asked the board members, “How will the public be involved in your process — as spectators or active, meaningful participants? You touted this process as interactive and fair. When will that happen?”

With the latter questions, Rounds was referring to Commissioner Detert’s assertions earlier this year that she wanted the redistricting initiative to be open and transparent.

During the Oct. 7 County Commission discussion with Spitzer, Detert expressed disappointment that he did not have software that would allow the board members themselves to work in the county Think Tank at the Sarasota County Administration Center in Sarasota, in view of the public, to move district lines to try to achieve the best possible new map.