School district’s special 1-mill tax wins strong endorsement for renewal
For the second time in three-and-a-half years, the majority of Sarasota County voters showed their support for the Single-Member Districts voting system for county commissioners.
During a March 8 Special Election approved by the commissioners in December 2021, 57.22% of the 99,391 citizens who cast ballots in the referendum opposed the board members’ attempt to switch back to countywide elections, based on the unofficial results.
During the November 2018 General Election, nearly 60% of citizens who voted on the Single-Member Districts county Charter amendment supported it.
Placed on the 2018 ballot by a nonprofit organization called Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE), the system allows only voters who reside in the same district as candidates for the commission to vote for those candidates.
Kindra Muntz, president of SAFE, has stressed that campaigning for a County Commission seat countywide is prohibitively expensive for most individuals.
In a March 8 email blast, as voting was underway, Muntz pointed out, “[W]hen Commissioners are elected countywide, they make policy that particularly benefits a small group — the developers, who bankroll their elections. With countywide elections, no principled candidate — Republican, Democrat or NPA [no party affiliation] — NOT beholden to developers can hope to win. With single member districts, Commissioners are elected by the voters in their district and represent their district as they serve with others for the good of the county.”
Muntz released the following statement on the night of March 8, after seeing the unofficial election results: “This was not about winning. The voters were reaffirming what we already had.” She continued, “This is a tribute to the voters of all political parties who worked together to defeat the commissioners’ attempt to take away our vote.”
In a March 10 statement she sent to The Sarasota News Leader, Muntz wrote, “This was a victory for the people. It was a win of the People over the [political action committees], and the people over the development overlords in this county.
“Let’s work together in the future for things that matter to all of us, and not be ensnared by artificial efforts of Party bosses to divide us,” she added.
On the night of March 8, the News Leader was unsuccessful in multiple attempts to reach county commissioners for comments. However, Commissioner Michael Moran responded via email on March 9.
Moran wrote, “I felt all five County Commissioners being held accountable to all the voters was important, but the voters spoke and I respect the result.
“The last time Sarasota County voted for Single Member districts, in 1992, the voters immediately rejected it at the next election opportunity in 1994,” Moran continued. “I was hopeful it would be the same result in 2022, but clearly we are in a different political environment.
“I remain committed to accountable government for the Sarasota County residents, no matter what form it takes,” he added.
All five of the commissioners had focused on the accountability issue in discussions about Single-Member Districts over the past year. Commissioner Christian Ziegler, especially, emphasized his view that Single-Member Districts deprived county residents of 80% of commissioner accountability.
As vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida, he sent out an email blast early in the morning on March 8, writing, “Democrats want to take away 4 of your votes for local government so that they can increase their odds of electing Liberals to local government — which will mean higher taxes, defunding law enforcement and responding to COVID by shutting down businesses and forcing curfews on citizens.”
Commission Chair Alan Maio had maintained for more than a year after the November 2020 elections that voters did not understand the Single-Member Districts issue on the November 2018 ballot.
Commissioner Nancy Detert asked that a question be included on the county’s 2021 Citizen Opinion Survey, in an effort to determine what respondents really felt about Single-Member Districts. A plurality supported the voting system, as one of the survey team leaders pointed out to the commissioners during a September 2021 report on the survey’s findings.
In the spring of 2021, the county commissioners tried to prevail upon the separately elected members of the county’s Charter Review Board to seek repeal of Single-Member Districts. However, after two meetings that drew dozens of speakers in support of the voting system, the members of that board voted unanimously in October 2021 against pursuing such action. Chair Joe Justice of Venice notified Commissioner Maio by letter of that decision.
School district referendum also a success
The second question on the March 8 Special Election ballot asked county citizens whether they wanted to renew a 1-mill tax that supports additional programs in the Sarasota County School District. It first passed in 2002.
On March 8, the unofficial returns showed that 84.23% of the citizens who cast ballots on that question approved implementing the tax for another four years.
The total number of votes cast in that referendum was 100,689, according to the unofficial results provided by the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office.
On the afternoon of March 9, the school district sent out the following statement in an email blast: “On behalf of the Sarasota County School District’s students, parents/guardians, staff, and Board members, thank you for your support in last night’s election. The continuation of the referendum will truly make a positive, life-changing impact on the future of our community.
“A high-quality, engaging education provides a foundation for a successful life, and Sarasota County Schools is committed to remaining a stronghold of educational excellence for all students. We are also dedicated to connecting our employees with the resources they need to support our students, their school communities, and worksites. The funding yielded from the continued millage will help the school district do all of this and much more.
“Thank you for choosing to invest in the future of our community’s children & their families, as well as the hardworking educational professionals and support staff that serve our schools. We appreciate your partnership as we continue to work as one for the success of all!”
In 2010, the special 1-mill tax won the support of 65.98% of the 70,347 voters who cast ballots on the question, Supervisor of Elections Office records show. In 2014, 76.9% of 45,699 voters supported the measure.
Then, in 2018, 78.63% of 62,934 voters approved the renewal of the tax, Supervisor of Elections Office records note.
More details of the election results
In response to a News Leader question on March 8, Paul Donnelly, director of communications and voter outreach for the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office, reported that the staff sent out 121,364 vote-by-mail ballots for the referenda.
The office’s website noted on March 9 that the unofficial results showed that 64,784 vote-by-mail ballots were counted in the school district referendum, with 63,563 tallied on the Single-Member Districts question.
Additionally, in data released at 6:59 p.m. on March 8 — 1 minute before the polls closed — the Supervisor of Elections Office staff reported that, as of that time, the total number of vote-by-mail ballots returned was 64,515. Early votes added up to 7,225, the office noted, while 28,790 people had voted in person.
The Supervisor of Elections Office website said on March 9 that voter turnout was 28.92%, with 350,144 people registered to vote for the special election.
Altogether, 99 precincts were open on March 8.
A News Leader review of voting in the Single-Member Districts referendum found only 19 where the majority of citizens opposed the voting method: 113, 117, 131, 135, 217 (there, 154 people voted for Single-Member Districts, while 155 voted against the system), 221, 303 (all seven voters opposed Single-Member Districts; that precinct is located at Twin Lakes Park, 6700 Clark Road in Sarasota), 311, 313, 315, 323, 325, 329, 331, 337, 419, 437, 503, and 505.
Additionally, Precinct 319 saw a dead heat: 127 votes to 127 votes. That precinct is located at Lakeside Plantation in North Port.
When the News Leader asked Donnelly of the Supervisor of Elections Office whether the March 8 turnout was a record for special elections, he responded with a series of figures reflecting the school district 1-mill tax referendum from 2002 onward. Further, Donnelly wrote that Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner had pointed out the previous day that the county had 42,000 more registered voters for the March 8 Special election than it had for the 2018 Special Election on the school district tax and other races.
The following is the series of data that Donnelly sent the News Leader for comparison purposes:
35.34% of voters participated.
79,034 ballots cast.
24.85% of voters participated.
60,963 ballots cast.
27.18% of voters participated.
70,389 ballots cast.
16.76% of voters participated.
45,779 ballots cast.
20.45% of voters participated.
62,994 ballots cast.
28.92% of voters participated.
101,263 ballots cast (unofficial).
In response to another News Leader question, Donnelly reported that all went smoothly on March 8 with in-person voting, to his knowledge.