Change in method of electing Sarasota County commissioners to be focus of Aug. 29 public hearing

Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections gains enough signatures on petitions to put single-member district issue on November ballot

SAFE President Kindra Muntz announces the success of the petition drive during a June 22 press conference at the Terrace Building, where the Supervisor of Elections Office is located in Sarasota. Image courtesy of SAFE

Instead of voting for all Sarasota County Commission candidates in races on future ballots, citizens may be choosing only those candidates in the districts in which the citizens and the candidates reside.

The switch to single-member districts is the goal of a proposed Sarasota County Charter amendment that will be the focus of an Aug. 29 public hearing before the County Commission. The hearing is set for the afternoon session of the board’s regular meeting that day, which will begin at 1:30 p.m. in the County Administration Center at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota.

Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE) gained more than the 15,096 voter signatures necessary to put the proposed amendment on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot. In a letter dated June 25, Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner officially notified County Commission Chair Nancy Detert that the valid number of signatures on SAFE’s petitions was 15,330, which represented 5% of the registered voters in the previous General Election, as required by the county Charter.

SAFE began the petition drive last year. Rachel Denton, communications manager for the Supervisor of Elections Office, told The Sarasota News Leader that the first batch of petitions was submitted on April 26, 2017.

The ballot question, as included in the proposed ordinance, says the following: “Shall each member of the Board of the County Commissioners of Sarasota County, Florida be elected by only those voters residing in the same district in which the Commissioner resides, rather than having each member of the Board of County Commissioners elected by voters County-wide as presently exists in Article II, Section 2.1A of the Sarasota County Charter?”

This is the proposed amended section of the Sarasota County Charter. Image courtesy Sarasota county

That language, presented to the County Commission on July 10, modified SAFE’s proposed ballot summary, which said the following: “Changes the method by which County Commissioners are elected. Currently each is elected by voters county-wide. This Amendment changes election to single member districts so that each County Commissioner is elected only by the voters in the district that they seek to represent.”

The commission still would consist of five members serving staggered terms of four years, SAFE pointed out in its petition drive.

In a news release, SAFE noted that it submitted the last petitions for the referendum to the Supervisor of Elections Office on June 22.

SAFE is “a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with a bipartisan board that encourages citizens to become informed and active regarding issues critical to fair and verifiable elections, including election reform and campaign finance reform,” it points out in news releases. Kindra Muntz is the president of the organization.

Images from the SAFE website homepage

Informing the voters

The County Commission authorization to advertise the Aug. 29 public hearing was listed on the board’s July 10 Consent Agenda of routine business items. However, Chair Detert pulled it and one other item related to citizen-initiated petition drives, so the board members would have an opportunity to make sure the public understood the significance of those items. “I just want to red-flag these,” she said.

Detert called the SAFE proposal “a radical change to how you elect your county commissioners.”

“Do you see any landmines with either of these two items?” she asked County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh, referring to the two referenda issues.

She added that if voters approve them in November, the commission would be the entity writing rules to implement them.

“I don’t see any legal problems” with the SAFE proposal, DeMarsh told her.

“We will implement the will of the voters,” Detert said. However, she continued, she wanted to make sure citizens “have all the proper information before the vote, so they know what they’re voting for.”

This is the title of the draft ordinance for the SAFE referendum. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In a press release, SAFE pointed out, “Today, Sarasota County Commissioners in our five Commission districts are elected countywide. The cost of campaigning in this large county is enormous. Local developers and their subsidiaries hold sway over elections by bankrolling candidates of their choice and receiving favors once they are elected. They receive a major return on their investment, spending thousands to gain millions, and continue the process year after year. Grassroots candidates representing their districts can hardly compete.”

The release added, “As a result, our traffic, neighborhoods, taxpayers and environment suffer from growth out of control, rather than balanced and sensible policies to protect us all. Inadequate impact fees, tax incentives and taxpayers footing the bill for infrastructure keep development exploding, but our quality of life and quality of our environment rapidly deteriorating.”

The release continued, “A Sarasota County referendum to change county commission elections to single member districts could address these problems by moving representatives closer to the people. Commissioners would not only have to live in their district, but campaign in their district, and be elected only by the voters of their district, rather than by voters across the county. This would cut the cost of campaigns by 80%, quintuple the influence of neighborhoods and increase the importance of door-to-door campaigning and personal contacts. Commissioners would be motivated to listen to their constituents and not just their largest campaign donors as they work for the common good for jobs, sustainable growth and a healthy environment for all in the county.”

The release noted that single member districts are used nationwide to elect members of Congress and state legislators. “They are used widely in Florida counties large and small,” it pointed out. “Sarasota County is one of the larger counties and deserves to be modernized to join the rest,” the release said. “Our Sarasota County Commission districts are almost as large as our legislative districts, and the territory covered by at-large County Commission elections in this county is vastly larger! It’s time for a change.”

The release explained that “some people ask why not have a mixed system with some at-large and some single member districts,” which is how the Manatee County Commission is structured. The release said that “a principled Bradenton Times journalist” recently noted that in Manatee County, that mixed system “still makes it next to impossible for good candidates to beat the big money developers for the at-large seats. Can County Commissioners beholden to developers paying for their county-wide campaigns really pay attention to the concerns of voters in their own district?” the release added.

For more information, visit the SAFE website.