Ahearn-Koch, Trice win at-large Sarasota City Commission seats

All proposed City Charter amendments win voter approval

(Editor’s note: This article was updated late in the afternoon of Nov. 28 to correct the salary figure for current city commissioners, based on passage of the applicable City Charter amendment.)

The Nov. 8 General Election has produced a majority of female members on the Sarasota City Commission.

Not only did incumbent Jen Ahearn-Koch win a second term, but Debbie Trice, past president of the Rosemary District Association, secured a seat on the board. Commissioner Liz Alpert won a second term in 2020.

Additionally, city voters this week approved four proposed amendments to the Sarasota City Charter. Appointed members of a decennial Charter Review Committee had recommended part of them following months of meetings.

The commission terms are for four years. However, after Ahearn-Koch was elected in May 2017, community advocates were successful in winning voter support to change the city election timeline from March and May to August and November. In working out how best to handle that change, City Attorney Robert Fournier ended up recommending longer terms for Ahearn-Koch and Commissioner Hagen Brody, who also won a seat in May 2017.

Brody decided to run for County Commission this year, but he lost in the August Democratic Primary. (See the related article in this issue.) Therefore, on Nov. 7, Brody participated in the last commission meeting of his term.

The unofficial results of the city races on the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections website showed Ahearn-Koch capturing 40.85% of the 28,674 votes for the City Commission candidates (11,712 ballots cast in her favor). Trice won 31.09% — 8,915 — of the votes, with the third candidate — attorney Dan Lobeck, long known as an advocate of controlled growth — in third place, with 28.06%, or 8,047 of the votes.

In her most recent campaign finance report available from Office of the City Auditor and Clerk prior to Nov. 8 — covering the period of Oct. 22 to Nov. 3 — Ahearn-Koch reported having raised a total of $68,385 and spending $61,256.89.

Two new contributions through checks or cash were listed on that form, adding up to $250. Additionally, Ahearn-Koch noted in-kind contributions totaling $1,160.89. Among those, the document says, CityPac of Sarasota provided an event venue and paid for printing services with a value altogether of $271.68, and The Reserve, located at 1322 N. Tamiami Trail, provided venue space with a value of $500.

On its website, CityPac explains that it “is a non-partisan municipal political committee that operates in the open and accepts no dark money. We are not big business or out-of-town developers.

The website adds, “We are ordinary citizens who care about Sarasota’s downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.”

Ahearn-Koch has been in the minority on a number of City Commission votes, especially over the past year, as she has worked to represent neighborhood interests and concerns.

Trice’s campaign finance report for Oct. 22 through Nov. 3 put her total contributions at that time as $42,591, with expenditures adding up to $38,179.42.

That report listed five new contributions, ranging from $10 to $1,000. (The latter amount was from the Democratic Executive Committee of Sarasota County.)

The form also noted two in-kind contributions — $271.68 from CityPac for an event; and $1,000 from Sarasota resident Sailesh Atluru, an engineer, for political signs.

Attorney Lobeck reported taking in a total of $60,931.22 in contributions through Nov. 3 and spending $59,301.80 as of that date.

His report noted that he had received $2,539 from 19 people during that period, and he had loaned his campaign a total of $6,500.

The contributions ranged from $10 to $750.

The commissioners-elect will be sworn into office during the City Commission’s statutory meeting scheduled for noon on Monday, Nov. 14, at City Hall, a city news release noted. City Hall stands at 1565 First St. in downtown Sarasota. The meeting may be viewed via live stream at https://www.SarasotaFL.gov, on Facebook or on Access Sarasota television (Comcast channel 19 and Frontier channel 32).

The Charter amendments

The Supervisor of Elections Office’s unofficial results show that the city Charter amendment that won the greatest support was the one that will allow city staff to procure insurance coverage for the three Charter officials — the city manager, the city auditor and clerk, and the city attorney — plus the city’s finance director, instead of surety bonds.

As Stacie Mason, director of the city’s Human Resources Department, explained in an Oct. 8, 2021 memo, her staff has been acquiring surety bonds for the above individuals “to ensure faithful performance of duties …”

If a problem arose, she continued, “[T]he issuer of the bond would be called upon to cover losses up to the limit of the bond amount. The main rationale for a surety bond is to protect the City against dishonesty or financial misconduct by that named official.”

However, Mason pointed out, the use of surety bonds “does not recognize the modern approach to liability coverage of losses from employees. If the language were to be revised to provide other coverages,” she added, “the protection [to the city] could actually increased, not diminished.”

Of the ballots cast on that issue, 13,101 voters — 71.16% — approved that amendment, with 5,310 — 28.84% — opposing it.

The first amendment called for raising a city commissioner’s annual salary from $28,149.58 a year to $44,250, as noted in a March discussion that the City Commission conducted on all of the proposed Charter amendments. Nonetheless, following the Nov. 8 election, a memo from City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs to Mason in Human Resources explained that the formula for calculating the salaries this year put the figure at $47,768.79 as of Dec. 14.

During the Nov. 8 General Election, 57.25% of the 18,719 voters who marked a response to the salary question approved it.

In late March, when the City Commission held a special meeting to discuss the proposed amendments, City Attorney Robert Fournier explained that the current pay schedule derives from a provision in state law that sets compensation for county commissioners on the basis of county population. The City Charter, he said, called for the Sarasota city commissioners to get 66.7% of the amount set for county commissioners in a county the size of the City of Sarasota.

“I think we make less than just about everybody in the area,” Commissioner Alpert pointed out. Having tracked the hours she spends on City Commission business, she continued, she had found her average to be 30 to 40 hours a week. “It’s not a part-time job anymore.”

Alpert proposed that the commissioners put on the November General Election ballot the provision that the pay would be 100% of what county commissioners make in a county with a population the size of the city.

However, Mayor Erik Arroyo had a different idea: “I’d like for us to consider a decrease in salary.” For example, he said, commissioners in the City of Miami, which has a much larger population than the City of Sarasota, make $9,000 a year, based on a 2018 document he had reviewed.

Service on the board, Arroyo said, “should be a civic duty.”

Alpert countered, “I don’t think any of us do it for the money,” Nonetheless, without sufficient compensation, Alpert said, only people who are independently wealthy can afford to serve on the City Commission.

Charter Review Committee member Cathy Antunes told the commissioners, “I think that there was unanimity among [the members of that group] that you all deserve a raise.” In fact, she added, “I think a lot of us were quite surprised at how little you make … You shouldn’t have to be rich to serve on the City Commission. I think that that shrinks the pool of people who would consider doing it.”

The third amendment included general recommendations for Charter changes. Among them are allowing the City Commission to change the city boundaries, consistent with law; allowing for the digital posting of ordinances and resolutions at City Hall; and removing a reference to the retention of ordinances in a book.

However, the primary modifications relate to the Office of the City Auditor and Clerk.

As Charter Review Committee member Antunes has explained in her blog The Detail, the new Charter language says, “With regard to auditing, the duties of the city auditor and clerk shall include, but not be limited to, reviewing, investigating, and evaluating systems of internal control to promote adequate safeguarding of assets, reliability of financial and operating information and compliance with laws and regulations. The City Auditor and Clerk shall have the authority to audit all operations, functions and divisions of the city and to recommend changes for improvements. The city auditor and clerk shall have full and unrestricted access to records, data, personnel and other information necessary to effectively carry out the auditing function.”

That amendment won 56.36% of the 18,102 votes cast on it.

The final amendment called for holding referenda on proposed City Charter amendments only during general elections. The Charter Review Committee did not propose that change. Instead, the recommendation came from Commissioner Brody during the March 28 special meeting.

Brody has been a staunch advocate of conducting any city elections or referenda during general elections, because — he has stressed — those elections have the largest voter turnouts.

That amendment passed with approval from 59.33% of the 17,740 citizens who cast ballots on it.