After picking a new map that makes limited changes to district boundaries, commissioners intend to ask voters to reverse a 2018 referendum governing county elections.
During a special meeting Monday, the Sarasota County Commission voted 4-1 to adopt a new district map that makes limited adjustments to the boundaries already in place, a move supported by members of the public who have previously been critical of the county’s redistricting efforts.
At a separate meeting earlier in the day, the commission took up an item that was more contentious, directing county staff to prepare a draft ordinance that would authorize a referendum repealing the use of single-member districts for county elections. Depending on when the referendum is placed on the ballot, the county could seek to eliminate single-member districts before the 2022 election, reverting to a system in which voters countywide elect all five commissioners.
Despite the relative absence of controversy surrounding the redistricting map, Monday’s meetings highlighted an ongoing divide between the commission and supporters of single-member district elections. Commissioners were united in their opposition to single-member districts, suggesting the electoral system was responsible for aspects of the county’s redistricting process that have drawn complaints from some residents since 2019.
“Single-member districts has been the cause of this angst,” Moran said.
Those who favor single-member districts said the system, established in 2018 following a referendum that drew support from 59.8% of voters, reflected the will of the people. Speakers at Monday’s meetings accused officials of ignoring the public and creating an inaccurate perception that the county’s approach to redistricting was a necessary product of operating under single-member districts.
“There is no link between single-member districts and, unfortunately, what’s come to be [the commission’s] controversial redistricting methods,” resident Pat Rounds said.
The county is undertaking a redistricting effort for the second time in two years to ensure the population across all five commission districts is more balanced.
County officials are working with consultant Kurt Spitzer and Associates in an effort to create a population disparity between the largest and smallest districts that’s less than 10%. According to 2020 Census data, the map the commission adopted in 2019 has a deviation of more than 14% between District 2 in north Sarasota and District 3 in the southern end of the county. In 2019, some residents criticized the county for redistricting without detailed Census population information.
Despite vocal opposition to the map selected two years ago, a dozen speakers at Monday’s special meeting encouraged the commission to adhere to the existing boundaries to the greatest extent possible. Speakers advocated for a map based on a proposal Spitzer drew, rather than two citizen-submitted options that made more significant changes to the five districts.
Those arguing in favor of the Spitzer map said it adhered to the county’s desire for compact districts and minimized the number of voters unable to participate in consecutive elections because they had been moved out of their district twice.
“If you’re using an objective criteria, you only have one choice,” resident R.N. Collins said.
A majority of the commission favored the same map, with Commissioner Christian Ziegler casting the dissenting vote. Commissioner Nancy Detert said she believed the county had done the bulk of the necessary redistricting work in 2019, and she supported a map that largely preserved those boundaries while making population adjustments.
“I think we paid a consultant to do our map,” Detert said. “I think he did what he was supposed to do.”
Prior to adopting a new map, the commission discussed its displeasure for single-member districts during its regular meeting Monday.
The board took up the topic at the request of Commissioner Al Maio, responding to the Charter Review Board’s decision in October not to make a recommendation on whether the county should maintain single-member districts.
Commissioners detailed a series of long-standing complaints about single-member districts, suggesting voters had been disenfranchised because they no longer had the ability to vote for four of the five commission seats. They said they believed the electorate was not clear on the ramifications of the change when they approved the 2018 referendum. Moran, a Republican, accused a “small group of sly Democrats” of building support for an amendment that nearly 60% of voters favored.
Other commissioners on the all-Republican board expressed similar concerns about partisan motivation. The Sarasota County Democratic Party has supported single-member districts since 2017, rallying support for the 2018 ballot initiative by stating it would give the party improved odds at winning a seat on the commission for the first time since 1966.
At the direction of the commission, County Attorney Rick Elbrecht will prepare the outline of an ordinance authorizing a referendum to repeal single-member districts. Officials highlighted three scheduled elections in 2022 during which the commission could put the question to voters: a March special election, the August primary and the November general election. Elbrecht said the county could also opt to hold a special election of its own on a different date. The commission did not specify a favored date Monday, instead directing staff to gather informations on the options available to the county.
If voters approved a repeal of single-member districts in early 2022, Elbrecht said it would take effect immediately, reshaping the dynamics of the August and November commission elections.
Supporters of single-member districts said the commission’s characterization of the system was inaccurate. Speakers Monday disputed the notion that voters were disenfranchised because they could only vote for one commissioner, arguing that single-member districts allowed for more direct representation and forced officials to be more responsive to their constituents.
“Commissioners weren’t physically present in my neighborhood during countywide elections,” north Sarasota resident Johannes Werner said.
Despite some commissioners suggesting the public would feel less favorably about single-member districts once they became more familiar with the system, Rounds pointed to the county’s 2021 citizen opinion survey as evidence to the contrary. In a random poll of 1,250 residents, 40% of respondents said they felt positively about single-member districts compared to 26% that responded negatively. (Twenty percent said they felt neutral about the change to single-member districts, and 14% said they did not know or declined to answer.)
Although Detert has criticized single-member districts, she was the lone commissioner to express disinterest in putting out another referendum, citing the survey results as part of her motivation.
“At that point, I’m done,” Detert said. “I’m not going to suffer any more slings and arrows on behalf of people who gave up their right to vote.”
Moran, who declined a request for comment following Monday’s meetings, said he had faith in the electorate’s ability to understand the effects of single-member districts. On multiple occasions, he also indicated he favored repeatedly asking voters to repeal single-member districts until his preferred outcome prevailed.
“I think voters are very smart,” Moran said. “I’m supportive of putting this on the ballot until a majority of the Sarasota residents realize what these sly Democrats did to their voting process here in Sarasota County.”
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