Voicing frustrations about limitations on his ability to engage with constituents in his district, Commissioner Ziegler leads renewal of County Commission criticism of Single-Member Districts

Commissioners Maio and Detert note pandemic’s impact on board members’ presentations to constituent groups

Commissioner Christian Ziegler. File image

The Feb. 9 meeting of the Sarasota County Commission marked the latest opportunity for board members to condemn the November 2018 passage of the Single-Member Districts County Charter amendment, which modified how the board members are elected.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler brought up the issue during the Reports Section of the meeting, when commissioners typically talk about issues they believe need addressing.

His comments focused on a desire to find better means of engagement with constituents, especially those in the area he represents, District 2.

“Obviously,” Ziegler said, “Single-Member Districts was passed … for political reasons. … But I’m not sure that it’s actually been fully implemented.”

Whoever serves as board chair, he continued, “historically has always replied” to emails the five commissioners receive. However, Ziegler added, “It would probably be more appropriate” if the board members could learn the district in which a constituent who has sent an email resides, so the commissioner representing that district could respond, as well.

Leaders of the nonprofit organization that advocated for passage of the Single-Member Districts amendment — Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE) — pointed to the increasing expense of candidates having to campaign countywide. In an effort to make commission races more competitive, SAFE proposed that citizens be allowed to vote only for candidates for County Commission who reside in the same district as those citizens.

SAFE President Kindra Muntz pointed out to The Sarasota News Leader last fall that 60% of voters “of all political parties voted for [Single-Member Districts] in 2018 to allow good candidates in each district to compete to represent their district, to reduce the cost of running by 80%, and to be able to hold their elected officials accountable.”

Muntz added, “Strong candidates of both major political parties emerged [in 2020] because of single member districts. People in each district elevated their concerns and were heard. More voters voted than ever before. Although challengers to the establishment candidates did not win,” she acknowledged, “they opened new horizons for future candidates to bring fresh hope for residents in Sarasota County that in coming years, the voices of the people may be heard, and decisions may be made that respect them as much as the developer donors who now hold sway over current commissioners.”

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger of Englewood won the District 5 race in November 2020 after facing Democrat Alice White of North Port. Commissioners Nancy Detert and Michael Moran were re-elected by citizens in their respective districts, 3 and 1.

This is the section of the Sarasota County Charter regarding Single-Member District voting. Image courtesy Karen Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller

Other changes to consider

During the Feb. 9 discussion, Ziegler also suggested that persons who address the commissioners during meetings identify the districts in which the persons reside.

Commissioner Nancy Detert told him he could just look at the cards speakers must fill out and sign, as those cards have a line for the address.

If the commission started asking individuals who appear before them them where they reside, she pointed out, that “reinforces the district idea.”

Ziegler further noted that, prior to his 2018 election, he worked for U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key. Like all other congressmen, Ziegler said, Buchanan had an annual budget that paid for constituent outreach and communications.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan. Image from Congress

Before he himself was elected, Ziegler continued, he engaged in routine communications with county residents. “Once I was elected,” he pointed out, “there’s no real answer for me … to talk to the people outside of the press, which is pretty frustrating … and you have to be very careful with public records, so I basically just stopped a lot of my communication.”

Then Ziegler told his colleagues, “I’d love, as a commissioner, to be able to do a … town hall with 20,000 constituents,” via conference call. He said he felt he would receive “some great feedback.”

In the future, Ziegler continued, he could envision each commissioner having an aide, whom the commissioner would hire, to help with outreach to constituents and serve as “kind of our eyes and ears” in each district.

“I think our staff does a great job at the county level,” he added, but he wanted to go beyond that with communication endeavors.

“People don’t really see the impact the Single-Member Districts has … on the operations of the county government,” Ziegler said.

He was not looking for changes in the immediate future, he added. Still, he asked his colleagues to think about what he was proposing.

Chair Alan Maio told his colleagues, “There’s nothing that precludes any of you” from responding to emails that come to the board members as a group, even though he, as chair, acknowledges all of the emails and makes certain they are directed to appropriate staff members, so issues raised can be addressed.

Maio also told Ziegler that, prior to the March 2020 start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he conducted 70 to 75 “mini town hall meetings,” many of which involved members of homeowner and professional associations. “I just did ’em wherever I was asked, because I was elected countywide.”

Commission Chair Alan Maio. File image

Maio added that he feels each commissioner should be able to speak to any group in any district.

At that point, Maio joked that he could see County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and members of the county’s Office of Financial Management flinching at the prospect of providing a bigger budget for the commissioners. Still, Maio continued, “The five of us share three assistants … The first gentle step might be … each commissioner gets an assistant.”

“Maybe that is the first step,” Ziegler responded. Nonetheless, he continued, “If I wanted to go out and do a mass event … I don’t know what the real avenue is for me to do that …”

Ziegler noted that when he worked with Congressman Buchanan, Buchanan and his staff routinely conducted town hall sessions on Saturdays. As many as 1,800 people showed up on occasion, Ziegler said. “I just don’t know why it’s different with us.”

“I think you make a good point,” Maio told him.

The ‘road to hell’ and other thoughts

“I think it’s worthy of a discussion,” Commissioner Detert said of Ziegler’s proposal about enhancing commissioner outreach.

Then she referred to the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment as “the road to hell, frankly, for lack of a better word. … We have to decide whether to focus on our district or represent the entire county.”

In some counties where Single-Member District voting has been implemented, she said, two extra members have been added to the boards to represent constituents at large. Each of the seven commissioners gets an assistant, she noted. “All you did is build up government … but we’re keeping the cost of government down.”

“You can put on a town hall meeting any time you want,” she told Ziegler, “and say anything you want, but with the repercussions of the reportage of what you said. But there’s no staff to help you do that.”

“I think we’re fine with the staff resources that we have now,” Ziegler replied.

“If I wanted to do a town hall,” he said, he could rent a facility and get a microphone. However, he added, he had been told that he would have to be certain to comply with all state public meetings requirements.

He did learn just the previous day, Ziegler noted, that each commissioner can send out letters, on his or her own, but such letters cannot represent the entire commission.

Commissioner Nancy Detert. File image

“When things open up again [after the pandemic ends],” Detert said, “we’ll get a ton of invitations to speak, and that’s where you get face-to-face with real people and have real conversations.”

Commissioner Moran told his colleagues he could “go on for hours” about his opposition to Single-Member Districts.

“The elephant in the room,” he said, “is whether Single-Member Districts is good governance or not. This conversation underlines that it isn’t.”

“I think the challenge,” Ziegler added, “is that we’re forced into a box with this Single-Member Districts.” No one is more opposed to that method of electing county commissioners than he is, Ziegler said.