County staff says the issue expected to be the last one on agenda that day
County residents having been working to organize a show of force on Dec. 7, in the fight to prevent the County Commission’s efforts to repeal the Single-Member Districts voting system that voters approved in November 2020, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.
On Nov. 23, Kindra Muntz, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE), sent out an alert, writing that the commissioners “are hell-bent on overturning Single Member Districts for electing County Commissioners, so they can stay in power.”
SAFE gathered the necessary number of voter signatures to get the Sarasota County Charter amendment on the November 2018 ballot. Nearly 60% of voters supported the measure, which allows voters in a district to cast ballots just for County Commission candidates who live within the same district. Previously, all commissioners were elected countywide.
In her email blast, Muntz stressed that people should care about the board’s endeavor to get rid of Single-Member Districts after it was implemented for just one election cycle — in 2020. “Who represents you on the County Commission is important because the commissioners have the power to decide growth policy, approve new development, and CHOOSE WHO PAYS for the infrastructure needed to support that growth,” she wrote with emphasis.
“Make sure your vote counts!” Muntz added. “Make sure only the voters in your district elect your Commissioner. Don’t let your votes be diluted by 80% of voters around the county who have nothing to do with your district. Vote NO if the amendment by the Commissioners asks you to ‘take back your four missing votes.’
“Your POWER is in your ONE vote for YOUR County Commissioner,” Muntz wrote.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler consistently has argued that the Single-Member Districts voting system disenfranchised 80% of the voters in the county.
All of the board members have voiced their opposition to the Charter amendment. During a discussion of the issue in November, Commissioner Michael Moran at four different points attributed the amendment to “sly Democrats.” Yet, Muntz and other advocates of Single-Member Districts have emphasized the bipartisan support for it, as evidenced by speakers during two Sarasota County Charter Review Board meetings this year.
That board voted on Oct. 20 to postpone indefinitely any discussion of the issue, in spite of the fact that County Commission Chair Alan Maio — acting on behalf of the full commission — had sent the chair of that group, Joe Justice, a letter this spring, asking that the Charter Review Board members review the amendment.
A question of timing
At the time she sent out the email blast, Muntz indicated that the hearing on the proposed referendum would be conducted during the morning session of the commission meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 7. This week, however, other advocates of Single-Member Districts — a group called Citizens for District Power — sent out a press release that called into question the scheduling of the hearing.
Pat Rounds, one of the founders of Citizens for District Power (CDP), alerted the news media on Nov. 30 that the county’s formal public advertisement for the hearing said it would begin at 1 p.m. on Dec. 7, “or as soon thereafter as possible …”
On Nov. 15, when county staff had scheduled a special public hearing on new commission districts, that, too, was advertised for the afternoon. That session was to begin at 1:30 p.m. Nonetheless, the board members first concluded all of the items on their regular afternoon agenda for that day.
As a result, some residents pointed out, they had to wait about two-and-a-half hours for the redistricting hearing.
In her Nov. 30 email, Rounds noted that Citizens for District Power had urged county staff to ensure that the Single-Member Districts hearing would be conducted first on the afternoon agenda for Dec. 7.
When the News Leader asked county staff on Nov. 30 about the hearing plans, Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant responded that, based on the information she had received, this hearing, too, would be conducted after the commissioners conclude the rest of the business scheduled for the afternoon session of their regular meeting that day.
Altogether, Grant added, four items are on the agenda following the board’s lunch break. One of them, she noted, involves a Coastal Setback Variance petition. That will deal with a controversial proposal for new construction on Beach Road on Siesta Key. (See the related article in this issue.)
‘Stop wasting our time’
Along with Rounds’ expression of concern about the timing of the Single-Member Districts hearing, she sent members of the news media a release with the following heading: “Citizens to Board: STOP WASTING OUR TIME AND TAX DOLLARS.”
“Despite abundant evidence that residents were not ‘confused’ in 2018 when they approved a Charter Amendment establishing Single Member Districts, the Board intends to put the issue before voters, possibly as soon as March 2022 — before 40 percent of Sarasotans exercise their first district vote,” Rounds’ press release said.
During a Nov. 16 discussion, the commissioners learned from County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht that Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner had advised County Administrator Jonathan Lewis that the referendum could be included on the ballot with a March 8 referendum on continuing a special Sarasota County School Board tax. Commissioners indicated that that they wished to do that.
“Reasons vary for the Board’s opposition to being elected by the voters who know them best,” the Citizens for District Power release continued. “Commissioner Al Maio originally suggested that people misunderstood the 2018 ballot,” the release added.
“Commissioner Mike Moran floated the theory that voters were tricked by ‘sly operatives’ seeking to elect Democrats,” it continued. “Analysis of the 2018 vote shows that Single Member Districts received overwhelming approval as good government by Republicans, Independents, and Democrats across all five districts.”
The release also pointed out, “Advocates for Single Member Districts (SMDs) say the real issue is accountability. Commissioners hold the power to approve, modify, or deny proposals for large housing projects, commercial development, roadwork, and other land uses that can dramatically impact neighborhoods.
“‘When my district Commissioner votes to allow a dump near a bird sanctuary, or an oversized hotel on a small barrier island, I want them to understand that we are watching, and there will be electoral consequences,’ said Bill Zoller, an architect and long-time advocate for smart and sensible growth,” the release noted.
“Sarasota County has grown too large for countywide Commission elections,” the release continued. “It can cost $100,000 or more to campaign from the airport to North Port — five times more than it takes to run in a single district. It’s also difficult to keep in touch with constituents countywide — voters often know little about Commissioners in other districts — not even their names — diluting accountability.”
Rounds pointed out in the release, “Eleven of the 15 largest counties [in Florida] elect all or a majority of their Commissioners by Single Member Districts.”
“‘For years, people who care deeply about the impact of rampant growth on our quality of life have brought their concerns to the Board,’” said Citizens for District Power’s Glenna Blomquist in the release. “‘Virtually every time, the developers get everything they ask for, and our neighborhood concerns are ignored,’” she added.
“Bottom Line,” the release said: “Single-Member Districts give Sarasota County residents a greater voice in our future — a voice currently overpowered by a small group of developers and special interests.”
In a Nov. 17 post on the Citizens for District Power Facebook page, Rounds wrote, “SMD was not added to our Charter as a trial run. It hasn’t even been implemented in two of five Districts yet, and [the commissioners] want to ditch it. Stop this madness! Your voice is your power.
“It’s David v. Goliath time again.”