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Sarasota Wednesday, May 22, 2019 5 months ago

County to hire consultant for potential redistricting process

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After reviewing a variety of options on which to base new district lines, commissioners directed staff to hire a consultant within the next month.
by: Samantha Chaney Staff Writer

The Sarasota Board of County Commissioners on Wednesday directed county staff to hire a third-party professional to act as a consultant on how best to collect data for redrawing district lines.

The topic of redistricting surfaced last month when Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed to voter-registration distribution as “out of whack" across the county, and requested a new look as the county gets closer to its first election with single-member districts.

Until late last year, commissioners were chosen by voters in races decided by a countywide electorate of about 319,000 registered voters:  135,535 Republicans,  97,423 Democrats and about 81,000 voters who either claim no party affiliation or membership in other parties. The commission's five members are all Republican.

But in November, voters approved single-member districts in which candidates are voted on only in the districts they represent.

The proposal sparked debate among both board and community members, as commission district lines are based on general population, with no bearing on voter registration demographics.

As a result of the data-related confusion, the board directed staff May 7 to begin the process of collecting preliminary population data. On May 22, staff members presented several options from which the board could choose, leading commissioners to ultimately land on the idea of a consultant.

Other data options presented to the board by County Administrator Jon Lewis on Wednesday — aside from using data from the 2010 Census — included either relying on GIS Demographic Data (software that uses data from the most recent Census to create population forecasts) or the American Community Survey, as provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.

While commissioners ultimately took an alternative option — to hire a consultant — not everybody warmed to it immediately.

“The GIS demographic data sounds like it fits in with what we need to do … The America Community Survey is not something I would support,” Detert said. “If we had to choose one, I would go with the GIS.”

But others, such as Commissioners Mike Moran and Al Maio, were more concerned with ensuring that the board’s actions were “legally sufficient” and preferred to have an expert weigh in to help staff get the numbers “as close to perfect as humanly perfect as humanly possible.”

“As long as we have a legitimate source of numbers,” Commission Chair Charles Hines said, “I’m OK with moving forward.”

Commissioners made clear the consultant would act only to collect population data and construct a potential redistricting timeline. Once hired, they are not to begin producing new district maps. The cost of hiring a consultant was not mentioned during the meeting.

"As long as we have a legitimate source of numbers, I’m okay with moving forward"

But regardless of which data set commissioners had chosen, the question of redistricting is not entirely devoid of public scrutiny, especially as the county would be legally obligated to finish the entire process by the end of 2019 — providing a short window of time and leaving some wondering why they won’t wait for the 2020 Census.

“We are rushing into this in just a few months instead of waiting for the 2020 Census,” said Suzanne Bryant, the secretary of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections. “For many reasons, I feel that this should be a careful, studious project using the Census … Can you see how that might ease the concerns of the people going forward?”

Commissioners defended themselves Wednesday, arguing that to redraw the lines in light of the new election process would benefit their constituents.

“The term ‘gerrymandering’ is being used a little too loosely,” Maio said. “It’s a compact district.”

“Why would [voters] want to operate under the old districts? This is the first election coming up in 2020,” Hines said. “Why would we wait till 2022 to implement the new system the district has voted for? There’s time to get those numbers … We could do it now or do it later, so why not do it now? Why wait until the next election?”

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