A legal challenge to the Sarasota County Commission’s redistricting map is likely to be filed soon, with groups such as the NAACP and the ACLU considering joining the lawsuit and wealthy Palmer Ranch developer Hugh Culverhouse saying he plans to pay the legal bills.
“We are working toward preparing a complaint and it would be anticipated that would be brought in December,” Culverhouse said.
Incensed by what he sees as racial discrimination in the redrawing of the commission district lines, Culverhouse said he is eager to try to get the new map thrown out by a federal court.
The discrimination claim stems from the fact that commissioners removed the historically African American community of Newtown and surrounding neighborhoods from commission District 1 — which is up for election in 2020 — and moved them into a district that does not vote until 2022.
“It was a blatant and obvious decision to disenfranchise the black and brown vote,” said Fredd Atkins, the African American former mayor of Sarasota who had been running for the District 1 seat but is drawn out of the district in the new map.
Removing Newtown and other heavily Democratic neighborhoods that have significant numbers of minorities from District 1 appears to shift the seat from Democratic-leaning to strongly Republican-leaning, which could help District 1 Commissioner Mike Moran win re-election.
The Sarasota County branch of the NAACP is taking the lead in trying to bring together a coalition of individuals and groups to file a lawsuit, said branch president Trevor Harvey.
“The major thing with redistricting, especially the map that they have, it disproportionately disenfranchises an entire minority community,” Harvey said.
Michael Barfield, a Sarasota resident who is president of the ACLU of Florida, said a team of ACLU lawyers, including some based in New York, are researching a potential lawsuit.
“We are in the evaluation stage,” Barfield said last week. “Lawyers are looking at the proceedings and doing deep data dive, number crunching, etc. — evaluating the legal merits. We expect to make a decision relatively soon. We’ve also talked with potential partners to collaborate on this project.”
The ACLU lawyers are researching various legal arguments.
“We’re looking at everything,” Barfield said. “Voting rights claims, constitutional claims, disenfranchisement claims, the kitchen sink we’re looking at.”
Any court action likely would seek a preliminary injunction blocking the new redistricting map from taking effect. That would keep the current district lines in place for the 2020 election.
Looming over any potential lawsuit is a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that said federal courts can’t stop elected officials from drawing district lines for purely partisan benefit.
“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority in the 5-4 decision. “Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions.”
But a lawsuit focused on claims of racial discrimination might still gain traction.
“It’s somewhat complicated by the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on gerrymandered maps, although factually I think it’s distinguishable,” Barfield said of challenging Sarasota County’s redistricting plan.
Even if the ACLU does not get involved, Culverhouse seems inclined to support legal action against the county, something the former federal prosecutor has engaged in before over various development issues.
Asked about the groups who might join in a lawsuit, Culverhouse said: “I do know one and it will be in federal court and it will be me.”
Culverhouse helped bankroll the single-member districts initiative that prompted commissioners to redraw the district boundaries.
In the past, commissioners were elected by voters throughout the county but under single-member districts only individuals living in a district can cast ballots in that race.
The single-member districts amendment to the county charter passed last year. Shortly afterward commissioners began arguing that the district lines needed to be redrawn to balance the populations in each district.
They hired a consultant to conduct a population study and help redraw the lines, but ended up choosing a redistricting map that is a slightly modified version of a map submitted anonymously by a member of the public.
The Herald-Tribune uncovered a number of clues that former Sarasota GOP chair Bob Waechter drew the map that was used as the template for the one commissioners selected. Waechter initially lied and said he did not craft the map, but later admitted he did it.
Waechter has long been a leading power broker in county politics and remains influential despite being arrested in 2012 for a political dirty trick. He was sentenced to three months of house arrest, two years of probation, 100 hours of community service and $5,000 in fines for making campaign contributions to Democrats on behalf of Republican Lourdes Ramirez — a slow-growth activist who has challenged development proposals. The scheme could have undermined Ramirez in a GOP primary by making it look like she supported Democrats.
Waechter’s involvement has heightened the controversy surrounding the redistricting effort and added to suspicions that it is designed to protect certain incumbents.
Commissioners have denied that they are gerrymandering the districts and some have pushed back against claims of racial discrimination.
But Commissioners Christian Ziegler and Charles Hines both voted against moving forward with the Waechter map. Both expressed concerns about the impact on black voters.
District 1 currently is roughly 14% black and 78% white. Under the modified Waechter map it would become 3.2% black and 90.5% white.
“This case, the bottom line is why are you picking on minorities?” Culverhouse said. “Why are we going backwards.? In ’54 they said you had to integrate schools; why are we going backwards?”