Democratic state Sen. Maria Sachs said Tuesday that the amount of time she spends at the Fort Lauderdale address she lists as her residence is “not relevant” to whether she meets the state’s residency requirement for lawmakers.
Sachs was elected in November to represent Palm Beach-Broward Senate District 34. She and her husband own a house in Boca Raton that is just outside the district, but Sachs last year changed the address on her voter registration and driver license to a 740-square-foot condo unit she rents in Fort Lauderdale from lobbyist and friend Judy Stern that is in District 34.
A conservative website, a Miami TV station and Senate Ethics and Elections Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, have questioned whether the Fort Lauderdale address is Sachs’ primary residence. Latvala’s concerns about the residency claims of Sachs and other lawmakers — all Democrats — prompted Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, to launch an effort to more precisely define residency rules.
In an interview Tuesday, Sachs declined to quantify the amount of time she spends at the Fort Lauderdale condo, saying she did not want to “glorify” the question.
“The issue is not how many nights you spend there, but how many days you spend in the community…No constituent ever asked where I sleep,” said Sachs.
“It’s not relevant to the issue of legal residency,” added Sachs, who hired attorney and constitutional law expert Bruce Rogow for an opinion on the residency issue.
The Florida Constitution says a legislator must be “an elector and resident of the district from which elected.” But there is no specific definition of residency in Florida elections laws.
A 1947 Florida Supreme Court ruling says “legal residence consists of the concurrence of both fact and intention” and “the best proof of one’s domicile is where he says it is.” A 1993 Division of Elections opinion says residency claims must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and examples of evidence that may be considered include driver licenses, tax and mail receipts, bank accounts, the relocation of personal effects and the purchase or rental of property.
“Residence is established by objective facts and intent to reside,” Rogow wrote in a July 25 letter to Sachs. “Based upon the information provided to me (your lease, rent checks, driver’s license, voter’s registration, relinquishment of homestead) and your specific intention to reside, you have met the Constitutional requirements.”
Sachs recently won two procedural victories over a complainant who accused her of not living in her district. But neither ruling addresses the merits of the claim that Sachs lives outside Senate District 34.
Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, threw out a complaint to the Rules Committee about Sachs’ residency because the filer relied on media accounts rather than first-hand knowledge. In a July 23 letter, Thrasher said the dismissal “should not be taken as passing on the merits of the complaint.”
The Florida Commission on Ethics also dismissed a residency-based complaint against Sachs, ruling that allegations she committed perjury and filed false documents fell outside the commission’s jurisdiction.
“No factual investigation preceded the review, and therefore the Commission’s conclusions do not reflect on the accuracy of the complaint,” a commission order dated July 31 says.
Sachs said the dismissals bolster her contention that she’s following the state’s residency rules.
“I am a legal resident of the District I represent in the Florida Senate. Period. The Florida Senate Rules Committee as well as the Commission on Ethics of the State of Florida have both issued reports that support that fact,” Sachs said.