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Sarasota County redistricting proposal

SW Florida

Sarasota County moves ahead with redistricting despite controversy

Expert said it would be “best to wait” for Census.

A disagreement with the Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR) bubbled over at a Sarasota County Commission meeting Monday.

But a controversial redistricting process for county commission districts ahead of the 2020 census will continue regardless.

County Commissioner Nancy Detert, a former state Senator, dismissed concerns raised recently in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune as “flamboyant” complaints.

She expressed anger at Richard Doty, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Coordinator at BEBR at the University of Florida, for going to the press with suggestions he advised against redistricting.

“Whether you like the guy who spoke to a reporter or not, those are the most reliable numbers available,” she said in a meeting Monday.

At the same meeting, consultant Kurt Spitzer said he had communicated with UF that if numbers indicated a difference in populations between county districts of greater than 10 percent, redistricting should move forward. BEBR’s numbers indicated a difference between most and least populous districts of greater than 12 percent.

Still, Doty himself confirmed he originally advised against moving ahead with redistricting before the U.S. Census in 2020.

“When Mr. Spitzer asked us to develop block-level estimates, I told him then that it would be best to wait (till) after the 2020 Census results are available,” Doty said.

“He said that the county could not wait that long. After the work was completed and I learned how these data were being used, I did have a phone conversation with Sarasota County staff to explain how the work was done and potential concerns about block-level data.”

Those include census blocks with hundreds of children living in communities but no adults.

County commissioners voted 4-1 to move ahead with redistricting. Commissioners are still considering three alternative maps proposed by Spitzer. Commissioners also expect to meet the week of Oct. 20 with the potential of adding another alternative map. A final hearing is expected Nov. 5.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler, also vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida, cast the lone vote against redistricting. He found the comments from BEBR compelling as the researchers there provided the fundamental population estimates being used to craft any proposal.

“These are the data experts,” Ziegler said.

Commissioners notably moved away from past suggestions a map approved this year would endure the Census and not be redrawn before the 2022 elections.

That’s largely because this go-round, commissioners will merely tweak existing lines to better balance populations within districts. Before next election cycle, commissioners will spend more time on more philosophical suggestions about district make-up, particularly in lieu of the fact Sarasota County voters in 2018 approved a switch to single-member district elections.

“In 2021, that will be getting into some detail about geographic ideas,” said Commissioner Charles Hines, who is term limited next year. He said maps after the Census could be drawn completely differently but this redistricting process must be completed before the end of 2019 under state law.

But Hines maintains it’s imperative districts be as close in population as possible ahead of the 2020 elections, the first where voters can only elect a single commissioner to represent the district in which they live instead of being able to vote for five commissioners, each elected countywide.

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Written By

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at jacobogles@hotmail.com.

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