VENICE — Whether Sarasota County commissioners will move forward with a potential change of their district boundaries is an open question, but for now, they want to see what the current population of the county looks like.
During their meeting Tuesday, they unanimously directed County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and his staff to perform a “first quick look” at the county’s population using the county’s geographical information system software tool.
Lewis told commissioners he felt confident staff could churn out those numbers fairly quickly, but added, “I can’t speak to the timing if we contract it out, but in general, it would be at the end of November.”
By a contract, Lewis referred to hiring a company that not only would provide more accurate population data, but assist the county in the entire redistricting process if commissioners decided that’s what they wanted to do.
Timing is crucial, as any redistricting of the commission boundaries must be done in an odd-numbered year as required by Florida law.
Earlier in the day, during her annual financial report, Circuit Court Clerk Karen Rushing told commissioners 417,000 people resided in the county. Rushing’s data came from the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida.
Commissioner Alan Maio, referring to Rushing’s data, said, “It would be interesting to see how it breaks out in the districts.”
Both Maio and Commissioner Christian Ziegler pointed out that the commissioners had received several emails on the topic.
Ziegler made it clear that commissioners were not considering redistricting at the moment, but only taking a look at the population figures.
Earlier in the day, six residents addressed commissioners, imploring them not to proceed with redistricting as suggested by Commissioner Nancy Detert earlier in the year.
“Why redistrict now?” asked Kindra Muntz, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, which last November led the change to single-member districts in the county charter. That measure was overwhelming approved by county voters.
Adding that the effort would involve extra cost and extra work, Muntz said the results would “still be inaccurate,” with the next U.S. Census occurring in 2020.
“Wait for the 2020 census and make it right once,” Donna Cubit-Swoyer, of Venice, told commissioners.
Muntz and other critics of the notion fear it’s an effort to perpetuate control of the county commission by the Republican Party.
No Democrat has been elected to the commission in more than two decades, but party leaders see an opportunity now with single-member districts to pick up at least one seat on the commission.
Lewis stressed having accurate population data was important to ensure commissioners had a “defensible methodology” if they wanted to move forward and perform a redistricting.
Commissioners last changed their district boundaries in 2011 and according to the population figures at the time, the districts were fairly even in the number of people within each district.
Nothing that those numbers totaled up to around 311,000 people, Detert said, “It wouldn’t hurt to know the true population of the county.”