New County Commission district lines approved on basis of map submitted by Siesta resident
By Rachel Brown Hackney
During a Nov. 19 special meeting, the Sarasota County Commission had three choices, as several of the 36 speakers who addressed the board that morning pointed out.
The commission could adopt proposed Map 2.A-1 with revised districts proposed by a consultant the county hired in June (Commissioner Christian Ziegler called it “the better of two evils.”); the board could adopt a revised version of a map originally submitted to the board under a fake name by a person who pleaded guilty to a criminal charge several years ago; or it could vote to wait until after the 2020 Census results have been released to draw new lines.
On a 3-2 vote — with Ziegler and Chair Charles Hines in the minority — the commissioners approved Map 4.1, which Siesta Key resident and former Sarasota County Republican Party Chair Robert Waechter submitted to county staff in October.
The Waechter map was the one speakers decried the most during a special meeting on Oct. 30 and again on Nov. 19, because it would prevent residents of the historically African American community of Newtown from voting in the 2020 election for the District 1 seat, which Commissioner Michael Moran won in 2016. Newtown was moved into District 2 in Map 4.1.
That map also splits Siesta Key into two districts — 2 and 4.
After about two hours and 15 minutes of public comments on Nov. 19, Moran made the motion to adopt Map 4.1. Commissioner Maio seconded it, and Commissioner Nancy Detert also supported it.
Yet, Commissioner Ziegler joined several members of the public in talking about the expectation that adoption of Map 4.1 will result in a legal challenge.
He had been told by “numerous people,” he said, that the Sarasota County Democratic Party, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) would file suit against the county if the board adopted Map 4.1.
Since they formally began the redistricting process late May, commissioners have stressed that the effort was necessitated by the passage in November 2018 of the Single-Member Districts amendment to the Sarasota County Charter. Instead of commissioners being elected countywide, starting in 2020, only voters who live in a district with an open seat will be able to elect a candidate for that seat.
Yet, among the speakers on Nov. 19, Preston DeVilbus, a retired Sarasota County judge, told the board members, “I am familiar with all the current law and the case law. … You are doing your job if you make a determination that you are going to redistrict when you have the appropriate numbers that you can rely on. … You should base [new district lines] on Census numbers.”
DeVilbus added, “There’s no Circuit Court judge nor federal judge who would hold it against you until you get the numbers in.”
Defending his position
Nonetheless, Moran emphasized the Single-Member Districts amendment as he began a statement explaining his motion.
Referring to accusations that Newtown voters would be unable to participate in the 2020 election with the approval of Map 4.1, Moran pointed out, “It’s not just Newtown. Many other territories were impacted by Single-Member Districts, [which] limits voters’ ability to participate.”
He then showed the audience a graphic with the district lines for Map 4.1.
During the 2020 election, he continued, about 40% of the county population — “just shy of 167,000” — will be unable to vote. During the 2022 election, Moran said, that number “will be in excess of 250,000 people,” or about 60% of the approximately 420,000 county residents.
Moran also pushed back against criticism that the map was submitted by Waechter under the pseudonym of Adam Smith. Moran maintained that the basis for Map 4.1 was a proposal Jono Miller of Sarasota, whom Moran characterized as “a respectable Democrat activist,” submitted to the commission in early September.
The Miller map, Moran continued, divided the county into districts Moran referred to as “Downtown Sarasota,” “Out East” and mid-county, plus a district dominated by the city of Venice and one predominantly containing the city of North Port. However, because of the Single-Member Districts amendment, Moran said, the commissioners wanted to ensure that more than one board member would represent each of the county’s municipalities. Therefore, they asked their consultant, Kurt Spitzer of Tallahassee, to take that into consideration in revising “the Smith map” from Waechter, as Spitzer evened out the population as much as possible among the five districts.
Nonetheless, critics — including many of the Nov. 19 speakers — accused Waechter of creating his version of the map in an effort to enable Moran and Detert both to be re-elected in 2020. Because Newtown voters traditionally have represented a Democratic block, shifting them into District 2 has been cited as a significant means of aiding Moran’s re-election chances.
Trevor Harvey, president of the Sarasota County NAACP Chapter, told the board members on Nov. 19 that the only reason they were pursuing redistricting “is to shift the power to benefit [yourselves].”
Critics also have pointed to the configuration of county districts approved in June 2011, after the 2010 Census, which put less of Venice and far more of North Port in District 3. With North Port Mayor Christopher Hanks among three candidates already having filed for the District 3 race, and Detert living in Venice, questions had arisen about her ability to win a second term on the commission.
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