SARASOTA — They blinked, in a manner of speaking.
Faced with alleged discrepancies in how they came up with new district maps presented by the public, Sarasota County commissioners on Monday held off on choosing any maps to advertise for a public hearing on Nov. 5.
Instead, commissioners asked their consultant for their controversial redistricting plan, Kurt Spitzer, to review a map submitted by a person identified only as “Smith,” and discuss with community activist R.N. Collins the discrepancies he found in the population study conducted by Spitzer.
That population study formed the basis for three alternative maps Spitzer prepared for commissioners to consider as they move forward with a much-criticized plan to redraw their commission boundaries this year in advance of the 2020 U.S. Census.
Only Commissioner Christian Ziegler has voted against the idea, arguing that the county should wait until after the Census when better population figures are available.
Monday’s discussion also came in the wake of what Commissioner Nancy Detert called a “flamboyant article” in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that contained allegations of errors in Spitzer’s population study.
The paper reported that a subcontractor hired by Spitzer, Rich Doty, had recommended that the county wait until after the Census to redraw the boundaries. Doty is a research demographer for the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Florida.
Spitzer quickly leaped to a defense of his work saying that “as you move higher and higher, you become more accurate.”
As to Doty, Spitzer said he was hired for his expertise in population estimates. “We didn’t retain him for his expertise in press relations,” Spitzer added.
Addressing the four anomalies reported in the Herald-Tribune, Spitzer said he didn’t think they were significant.
But Collins, a community activist with a degree in economics and an expert in GIS mapping and statistics who discovered those anomalies and shared them with the media, told commissioners during Monday’s public hearing that he had uncovered 1,000 “serious flaws” in the data used by Spitzer to draw the three alternative maps the consultant had prepared for the new commission boundaries.
Those comments seemed to trouble Detert, who said she had worked with Collins before and knew his background.
With commissioners expressing varying degrees of misgiving over the situation, and with assurances by Spitzer that he could fix any errors, they then decided to hold off on an immediate decision and wait until a special meeting to be scheduled later this month.
Spitzer had indicated earlier that the Smith map, of the six submitted by the public, would be the easiest to work with. That map, based more on geography, put most of the cities in an individual district with only one commissioner representing each city. Longboat Key and the city of Sarasota are the exceptions with both cities in one district, represented by one commissioner under this map.
Commissioners again did not heed the pleas of the 10 people who addressed them Monday, nor the hundreds more in the county’s online survey, who told them to hold off on redistricting until after the Census.
As he has in the past, Commissioner Charles Hines resorted to legalities, saying that with an imbalance in the population in each district “it’s imperative that we get as close as possible. We have to fix this.”