After more than 80% of speakers voice support for Single-Member Districts, Charter Review Board chair says bylaws prevent May 19 discussion

Joe Justice says issue will be on Charter Review Board’s Oct. 20 agenda

The Charter Review Board members and those in the audience stand for the Pledge of Allegiance on May 19. News Leader image

After he and his colleagues listened to approximately 90 minutes of comments from 45 speakers on the night of May 19, the chair of the Sarasota County Charter Review Board announced that the organization’s bylaws would prevent it from taking up the issue of Single-Member Districts until its next meeting.

Joe Justice of North Port noted that he had received a formal request from County Commission Chair Alan Maio, asking that the Charter Review Board discuss the potential of the county’s “reverting back to a vote for the county commissioners by the full county.”

(As The Sarasota News Leader reported on May 7, Justice confirmed receipt of Maio’s letter in an April 23 email to Maio. Justice wrote, “This item was going to be on the agenda for our next meeting to be discussed.”)

However, Justice continued during the May 19 meeting, he would have to schedule a discussion and debate of Single-Member Districts for the Charter Review Board’s Oct. 20 agenda.

Justice ended up offering an apology about that several times before the meeting concluded.

This is the section of the Charter Review Board bylaws pertaining to meeting discussions. County Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant told the News Leader in a May 20 email that the county’s liaison to the Charter Review Board pointed to part of Section 4.7 in explaining Chair Justice’s reference to the bylaws. The line begins, ‘By affirmative vote of a majority of the members present …’ Image courtesy Sarasota County

A motion to set the Oct. 20 discussion passed unanimously. (It appeared to the News Leader, based on the roll call at the beginning of the meeting, that all 10 members of the board were present.)

Just before the vote, Charter Review Board member David Samuel of Venice told the audience members at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota, “This is your platform to speak publicly how you feel, and you certainly did that tonight.”

These are the constitutional and Sarasota County Charter amendments on the Nov. 6, 2018 ballot. Image courtesy Supervisor of Elections Office

Then, holding up a copy of a paper ballot for the November 2018 General Election, Samuel pointed out that it had 13 proposed amendments to the Florida Constitution and six related to county issues, along with four judicial races and races involving numerous local seats.

Among the county initiatives on that ballot was the proposal to switch the method of electing commissioners to a Single-Member Districts system. Through that, a citizen would be able to cast a ballot only for a candidate living in the same district as that citizen. Previously — except for a couple of years in the 1990s, when the Single-Member Districts system also was in effect — every voter participating in a general election with Sarasota County Commission races on the ballot could vote for a candidate in each race, regardless of where the citizen or the candidate lived.

Samuel said he received calls from county residents who told him too many of the issues on that November 2018 ballot were misleading.

Referencing the fact that the vast majority of the speakers who addressed the Charter Review Board that night support Single-Member Districts, he indicated those also are Democrats. (All the county commissioners and all the Charter Review Board members are Republicans.) “A lot of the folks,” Samuel said, are “well educated [about Single-Member Districts], so when they’re fighting for this, they put a lot of effort behind it.”

(The News Leader counted only eight of the 45 speakers as opponents of Single-Member Districts.)

However, Samuel added, “Other folks really didn’t know what was going on.”

After the vote on scheduling the item for the October meeting, Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck asked, from the audience, whether a third Charter Review Board meeting might end up having a Single-Member Districts issue on the agenda.

What happens on Oct. 20 would determine that, Justice responded, acknowledging that that is a possibility.

Charter Review Board Chair Joe Justice. File image

“I’m sorry,” Justice added again. “That’s the bylaws.”

When another audience member asked whether the Charter Review Board members might end up appointing a committee to address the issue, Justice replied, “That’ll be determined at the next meeting.”

Samuel then pointed out that persons interested in attending the Oct. 20 session should check the location shortly before the meeting takes place. Because of construction at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice, he added, the Charter Review Board might need to hold the October session in downtown Sarasota, as well.

(The county is constructing new 12th Judicial Circuit Court facilities on the Anderson Administration Center site, as well as making modifications to county offices.)

‘We know what we voted for’

Before allowing the speakers to begin making their way to the podium, Charter Review Board Chair Justice noted that the rules of procedure call for every speaker at Open to the Public to have 5 minutes. However, he pointed out, “We have quite a few speakers tonight.”

Therefore, Justice suggested that the board reduce the time period to 2 minutes. A motion to that effect was made and seconded, and it passed unanimously. (Justice never acknowledged during the meeting who made or seconded motions.)

The very first speaker was Jack Brill, acting chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota County. He stressed a point county commissioners have made: With the implementation of Single-Member Districts, “Each Sarasota County voter lost 80% of their vote for County Commission. This is the worst form of voter suppression.”

Jack Brill makes a point as he reads his comments on May 19. News Leader image

Brill further pointed out that the proponents of Single-Member Districts said the voting system would decrease the expense candidates would incur in campaigning for seats. “The proponents of the [2018] referendum do not keep their promises,” he added, citing the fact that the total amount of campaign contributions candidates for three commission seats in 2020 raised was $355,000. The figure for the 2018 races, with countywide voting still in effect, was $339,000, he said.

Steele Williams, a youth who lives in North Port, told the Charter Review Board members, “We are divided on so many issues that further dividing up the county is simply not a good idea.”

He added that Single-Member Districts diminishes the accountability of the commissioners to the public, with each board member caring just about his or her constituents and not county residents as a whole.

Three of the first four speakers criticized the Single-Member Districts voting system.

Then Lourdes Ramirez of Siesta Key was the first person at the podium to allude to Commission Chair Maio’s assertion that citizens in 2018 where unaware of the facets of the county Charter amendment when they approved it.

“It’s the County Commission that doesn’t get it,” Ramirez said. “I believe the voters are smart enough to understand what they voted for in 2018.”

Louise Machinist of Sarasota told the Charter Review Board members, “Every single voter should be infuriated about what the county commissioners are doing.” They have politicized the issue of Single-Member Districts, she added, “to maintain political power, just as they brazenly redistricted in order to preserve their political power.”

She was referring to the commissioners’ approval of new district lines in November 2019. Commissioner Nancy Detert, who first suggested that action, claimed it was necessary because of the Single-Member Districts amendment. With South County having grown so much since the last redistricting — in 2011 — Detert said each district should have a population count as close as possible to that of every other district.

Moreover, Machinist told the Charter Review Board members, “As a senior citizens, I find it particularly insulting that the commissioners claim we were too stupid, deluded or confused to know what we were voting for. We know exactly what we voted for.”

Andrea Shlasko of Venice noted that she graduated from high school in 1968. That was the last year the County Commission was not made up entirely of Republicans, she said.

To run for the board countywide, Shlasko continued, a person has to win as many as 120,000 votes. “That’s hard to do.” The person needs “a huge army of volunteers or a huge amount of money. … The chances of a grassroots candidate winning in this environment are slim to none.”

Further, she said, “The county has been built up in the high-rent districts to the disadvantage of South County.” She alluded to the millions of dollars county commissioners over the past decade have allocated to Nathan Benderson Park, so it could host international and national rowing events. Yet, Shlasko pointed out, “North Port, the largest city in the county, doesn’t have a hospital.”

“It seems to me to be great hubris now to flout the will of the voters and say I didn’t know what I was voting for. Well, I sure did,” Donna Cubit of Sarasota told the Charter Review Board.

“Our voters understood exactly what they wanted,” Richard Steckler of North Venice added, “and they know better than the politicians.”

Kindra Muntz addresses the Charter Review Board. News Leader image

Kindra Muntz, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE), which worked to get the Single-Member Districts initiative on the November 2018 ballot, countered speakers who said voters had less representation with the new system.

Instead of four-fifths of voters outside their districts choosing their representatives on the County Commission, she said, citizens are able to elect the board members they want to represent them, Muntz said.

Moreover, she pointed out, in the past, during countywide races, “The very entrenched candidate would simply skip forums.”

In contrast, during the 2020 election, Muntz said, “For the first time, all candidates showed up at forums held by the League of Women Voters and the Sarasota Tiger Bay Club.”

“Let the people keep the power,” Muntz urged the Charter Review Board members.

Asked on May 20 to comment on the meeting, Muntz wrote in an email: “Many thanks to both Republican and Democratic supporters of single member districts who showed up and spoke at the Charter Review board meeting May 19.  … Please know, either the Charter Review Board or the County Commissioners could put a repeal amendment on the ballot in 2022. If that is done, you can be sure the power brokers in this county will spend massive amounts of money messaging the public between now and then to try to persuade voters in this county to vote against their interests and return to at-large countywide elections. Voters need to remember, their greatest power is when they and only the voters in their district elect their County Commissioner, not when 80% of other voters all over the county can choose their Commissioner for them. Don’t be fooled.  Your one vote in single member districts is more powerful than five votes scattered over the county over four years. Direct accountability from your Commissioner is better than lip service from five.”

Robert Waechter offers his comments on May 19. News Leader image

During his remarks at the May 19 meeting, Robert Waechter of Siesta Key, a past chair of the Republican Party of Sarasota County, said, “There appears to be a basic misunderstanding about what’s going on here,” with speakers asking the Charter Review Board not to repeal the Single-Member Districts amendment. “You don’t have that right,” Waechter told the board members. “You have the right to give it to the voters.” Yet, Waechter continued, “The same people up here asking you to listen to the voters, out of the other side of their mouth are saying, ‘Don’t give it to the voters.’ That’s the last thing they want to do. … They sold the county a lame horse once; they don’t think they could do it again.”

‘Best example of success of Single-Member Districts’

“This is a simple issue,” Victor Rohe of Sarasota said. “This is the machine versus the grassroots people. That’s it; doesn’t get any more complicated than that.”

In the 2020 District 1 Republican Primary, in which Commissioner Michael Moran was the incumbent, Rohe continued, Moran nearly lost to challenger Michael Hutchinson, who garnered the majority of the votes by mail and narrowly lost in the early voting.

“Due to a last-minute hit piece,” Rohe contended, which painted Hutchinson, “the treasurer of the most conservative club in Sarasota County,” as an ally of Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama, Moran prevailed. That campaign material was targeted to uninformed voters, Rohe added.

“Single-Member Districts gives each party their best candidate, their strongest candidate.” Referring to the influence of special interests in the county elections, Rohe said, “Right now, you got to go kiss the ring if you want to run for office. Everybody knows it.”

Hutchinson himself told the Charter Review Board members, “I’m a staunch Republican.” The reason he ran against Moran, Hutchinson continued, was that residents of the eastern part of the county, where Hutchinson lives, felt Moran was not representing their interests.

He won 4,989 votes in the August 2020 Republican Primary for District 1, while Moran garnered 5,354 votes.

“Coming out of nowhere,” Hutchinson added on May 19, “I came that close [to defeating Moran].”

These are the results of the August 2020 Republican Primary for the District 1 County Commission seat. Image courtesy Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner

“I am probably the best example of the success of Single-Member Districts, Hutchinson said.

Valerie Buchand, a long-time activist in the traditionally African-American community of Newtown in Sarasota, told the Charter Review Board members, “It falls in your hands tonight to either stand for what you were put in office for or to go along with the special interest group.” She alluded to the political dividing lines between Black and white Americans, as well those between “the rich and the poor.”

“We have a right to the table,” Buchand continued. “And I hope and pray that you will adhere to our voices.”

Whoops, cheers and applause resounded in the Commission Chambers as she concluded her remarks.