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Sarasota Wednesday, Apr. 28, 2021 4 months ago

Commission considers redistricting, repealing single-member districts

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Commissioners are considering what data to use for redistricting and whether voters want to get rid of single-member districts, which were approved in 2018.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

After redrawing districts ahead of the 2020 election, the Sarasota County Commission is again discussing moves that could affect the way residents vote.

Commissioners on April 20 had preliminary discussions about how to best redraw district lines after the 2020 census data is released and asked the Charter Review Board to review and potentially repeal the county’s single-member districts.

This year, the U.S. Census Bureau delayed the release date of data that local municipalities use to redraw political districts from March to September.

Commissioner Mike Moran said the county voting cycle shouldn’t be upset by federal slowdowns. Instead, he said, the county could redraw lines similar to how it did for the 2020 elections.

Ahead of the 2020 elections, commissioners hired a consultant to redraw district lines to better reflect county population trends. However, the county also considered maps drawn by community members. 

The commission eventually adopted a map drawn by Bob Waechter, a former Sarasota GOP chairman. The map moved many Newtown residents out of District 1, which made them ineligible to vote in the 2020 elections.

The move also triggered a federal civil rights lawsuit that claimed commissioners discriminated agains Black residents when they redrew the lines. The lawsuit eventually was denied in federal court, but the judge noted the decision to redraw ahead of the Census was political in nature.  

Still, Moran — who won reelection to the District 1 seat in 2020 — said state law allowed the county to redistrict in 2019 with census data or “any other good data.” He argued that the data collected from the previous consultant was enough to move ahead without waiting for the census data.

“Sarasota County is not going to be held hostage to some federal slowdown,” he said. “ … Federal census or not, we can go forward in this community.” 

County Attorney Rick Elbrecht said laws are different this year due to a Florida Constitution provision that requires counties to look at redistricting using Census material only. 

Commissioner Nancy Detert questioned whether it’s possible for the county to not redraw boundaries at all. Elbrecht said there is some ambiguity in the process and said he would look into it before issuing a legal opinion. 

Commissioners also discussed the single-member district voting method, which was approved by voters in 2018. In November, they asked staff to solicit public input on districts and whether they want to see them stay.

Although the referendum was approved with 60% of the vote, commissioners contend the system, which requires voters to cast a ballot for the commissioner in their district, is confusing.  Some say voters did not know what they were approving when they voted in favor of the citizen-initiated change. 

Now commissioners want the Charter Review Board to review the voting system and consider a repeal for the ballot. Commissioners can at any time approve an ordinance to place an amendment on the ballot. 

“I’ve yet to have somebody come up to me and say, ‘You know, I’m pretty glad and absolutely delighted that I gave up my right to vote for four commissioners,’” Chair Al Maio said. “I’m still waiting for that person, and I’m never going to meet them.”

The board gave consensus for the Office of the County Attorney to look into what can and can’t be legally done in terms of redistricting. 

The next Charter Review Board meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. May 19.

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