A contentious debate over County Commission district boundaries has spilled into a new decade. Will map-related disputes become a regular occurrence in Sarasota?
During the open comment section of Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, speakers cast aspersions on the work of Brian Goodrich, the author of two of the three maps the county is considering as it redraws district boundaries for commission elections.
Two members of the public spoke in conspiratorial terms about Goodrich, who has not appeared at a commission meeting to comment on the maps he submitted. They suggested his maps were drawn with the intent of improving the odds that incumbent Commissioner Christian Ziegler, a Republican, retains his seat on the all-Republican board.
The commission voted 4-1 to continue consideration of the Goodrich maps alongside a third option based on a consultant’s proposal. After the meeting, Goodrich — a lawyer at the Bentley Goodrich Kison law firm — acknowledged his proposals were, in fact, drawn based on partisan considerations. But he said his motivation was not to protect incumbents, but instead to increase the odds of a Democrat winning a seat on the commission for the first time since 1966.
“I think it’s funny that it’s being hailed as a tool to get Christian Ziegler re-elected,” Goodrich said. “I don’t know Christian Ziegler. I have no stock in Christian Ziegler, and it was absolutely not done with that in mind. It was solely done from the perspective of — how do we create a balance on the County Commission?”
The confusion and contention surrounding Goodrich’s proposals add to a choppy discourse surrounding the county’s redistricting efforts since 2019. Two years ago, over the objections of some members of the public, the commission decided to adopt a new district map before receiving Census data, even though county staff initially said such an effort was not necessary.
The county used a resident submission as the basis for the redrawn boundaries in 2019, though redistricting consultant Kurt Spitzer said the map did not adhere to traditional principles. The proposal, initially filed anonymously under the name Adam Smith, was eventually linked to former former Republican Party of Sarasota County Chairman Bob Waechter.
County commissioners justified the 2019 redistricting by saying the previous district map, adopted following the 2010 Census, was out of date. Spitzer’s estimates suggested there was a 12.3% population gap between the largest and smallest districts under the 2011 map, which would exceed the 10% threshold officials use to determine whether a map is legally defensible. County staff estimated that gap at 9.1%.
2020 Census data showed the disparity between the largest and smallest districts under the new map was more than 14%. Although some commissioners have stood by the decision to adopt a new map in 2019, critics said the population imbalance reflected poorly on the choice to redistrict without detailed Census information.
“To me, that says maybe what you did in 2019 wasn’t accurate,” resident Pat Rounds said.
For the latest redistricting effort, the county solicited online map submissions from the public from Oct. 1-11. At a special meeting Oct. 20, the commission eliminated nine of the 11 citizen proposals, advancing only the Goodrich maps for further consideration.
A third map based on a proposal from Spitzer largely seeks to adhere to the 2019 boundaries, while the Goodrich maps make more significant changes to the existing map. Commissioner Nancy Detert was the lone vote on the commission to oppose the inclusion of the Goodrich proposals at a Nov. 15 public hearing scheduled for final adoption of a new district map. She suggested the Goodrich maps failed to adhere to the county’s goal of creating compact districts, and she saw no need to make significant changes to the 2019 boundaries.
“We did all the heavy lifting before,” Detert said. “All we had to do is tweak numbers based on the census.”
Goodrich, who said he drew the maps in partnership with his colleague Morgan Bentley, defended the use of party politics as a factor in the redistricting process. He said the maps he submitted were not slanted to guarantee a victory for one party in any race — one map retains a Republican registration majority in each district — and he felt his proposal would improve the dynamics of the county electoral process.
“The goal of the maps is to create balance,” Goodrich said. “It’s not saying, ‘I want this particular Democratic candidate to win.’ It’s not saying, ‘We want to have five Democratic commissioners.’ It’s to give a chance for more diverse voices to sit on the commission.”
Regardless of which map the commission picks, Commissioner Mike Moran suggested the county would need to revisit the redistricting process every other year in perpetuity.
“This isn’t just 2021,” Moran said. “We are now mandated to look at it every odd year. We will be back here in 2023.”
The Florida Statutes says county commissions should adjust district boundaries “from time to time“ to “keep them as nearly as equal in proportion to population as possible.“ Although a county can only redistrict in odd-numbered years, there is no obligation to adjust boundaries on a biannual basis. County staff did not respond to a request for comment on its interpretation of redistricting requirements.
Moran linked the need for redistricting to a 2018 referendum creating single-member districts for the County Commission. Sitting commissioners have been critical of the voter-backed initiative that allows each district to elect one representative to the county board, rather than voters countywide participating in the election for all five seats.
“Single-member districts brought this contentious nature about,” Moran said.
Rounds, who has advocated in support of single-member districts, admonished the county for its continued negative focus on the new electoral process. Rounds noted that nearly 60% of voters supported single-member districts in 2018, and a recent county opinion survey showed a positive sentiment among residents toward that electoral process.
As the county works to finalize a new district map before the end of the year, Rounds expressed concern the commission could eventually opt to authorize a new referendum seeking to repeal single-member districts.
“The fact that they’re still holding on to this to me says we’re still on the pathway for single-member districts to be on the ballot between now and 2022,” Rounds said.
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