Former Charter Review Board chair says amendments were response to voters’ approval of Single-Member Districts voting system
Stressing their role was a ministerial one, the Sarasota County commissioners this week voted unanimously to place on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot two amendments that the county’s separately elected Charter Review Board approved in October 2020.
“This is not our ordinance,” Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out of the legal document the board members had to approve for the amendments to be put before the voters. “If people don’t like what’s on the ballot,” she added, “they can just vote ‘No.’”
Altogether, five members of the public — one of whom is a candidate for the District 2 County Commission seat this year — urged the commissioners not to allow the proposed amendments to make it to the Nov. 8 ballot.
Among the speakers during the July 12 public hearing was Alexandra Coe, who was elected to the Charter Review Board (CRB) in November 2020.
She emphasized the fact that the CRB members seated in October 2020, not the current board members, approved the proposed amendments. Moreover, she told the county commissioners, having listened to all of the CRB meetings during which the amendments were discussed, “I do not believe there was enough public input into these.”
They were approved “in the middle of the pandemic,” Coe pointed out.
The irony, she added, is that the 2020 CRB members insisted their goal is to promote clarity in regard to citizen-initiated amendments. Yet, the CRB amendments, she pointed out, “are very vague and inconsistent.”
“This is a completely unconstitutional usurpation of the public’s ability to amend its Charter,” Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino, a Democrat seeing the District 2 commission seat, told the county commissioners.
During a formal presentation, CRB member Joe Justice of Venice, who was chair at the time the amendments were approved, acknowledged that work on them began after the 2018 passage of the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment. That changed the method of electing county commissioners. Previously — except during a two-year stretch in the early 1990s, when Single-Member Districts also was in effect — the county commissioners were elected countywide. With Single-Member Districts, a voter can cast a ballot just for a candidate who lives in the same district as the voter.
“So many people complained — at least to us,” Justice said on July 12, “that they didn’t understand what [the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment] was about.” That was why, he continued, that the CRB came up with the idea of requiring sponsors of amendments to appear before the board, so both the pros and cons of a proposed amendment could be discussed. He added that his hope was that members of the news media would report on those discussions, and then the public would read the accounts and understand the amendments.
Further, the requirement in the first amendment for a review of any proposed amendment for its legality, Justice said, was to prevent the possibility of “expensive litigation” to remove the amendment from the Charter later on, if the amendment won voter support yet proved to be in conflict with state law, for example.
“This would not prevent anybody from making a change to the Charter,” Justice maintained. “They would just have to explain it before the [Charter Review] Board …”
The nonprofit Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE) had worked to gain enough voter signatures to get the Single-Member Districts amendment on the 2018 ballot. It passed with close to 70% of voter support.
However, during ensuing meetings, county commissioners began talking about constituents telling them, as well, that the constituents did not realize what the ballot question meant.
Conversely, numerous residents appearing during County Commission meetings and during later Charter Review Board sessions made it clear that they knew exactly what they were voting for in supporting Single-Member Districts.
Nonetheless, the county commissioners voted to hold a March 8 referendum in an effort to repeal that voting method, so commissioners once again would be elected countywide.
That effort failed, with 57% of voters rejecting it.
Facets of the Charter Review Board proposals
The first proposed Charter Review Board amendment that will be on the Nov. 8 ballot calls for the following:
- At least 10% of the total number of registered voters in each of the five County Commission districts, as of the last election, would have to sign a petition in favor of placing an amendment on the ballot before the measure could go before voters.
- A petition form provided by the county would have to be used. That would include, at a minimum, the proposed language of the Charter amendment, the ballot title and the ballot question.
- Any proposed Charter amendment would have to undergo a county review for legal sufficiency after the Supervisor of Elections Office had validated that signatures of 1% of the registered voters in the county in the last general election had been gathered on petitions. If legal deficiencies were found, they would be conveyed to the sponsor of the petition.
- A fiscal impact statement of no more than 75 words, prepared by county staff, would have to accompany any citizen-initiated Charter amendment. That would have to be written after 1% of registered voters’ signatures were obtained by the sponsor. Then, the petition form would be revised to include that fiscal impact statement, so subsequent signers would have the opportunity to read it.
When Commissioner Ron Cutsinger asked Chief Deputy County Attorney Karl Senkow whether that 1% would represent voters countywide, Senkow replied, “Yes.”
- Finally, as Justice had pointed out to the commissioners, the sponsor of a petition would have to appear before the Charter Review Board to explain the measure.
During his remarks as part of the public hearing, Siesta resident Cosentino protested that when he was seeking to get two proposed Charter amendments on the November 2018 ballot, he met with Justice and requested 20 minutes to explain them to the Charter Review Board. Justice denied that request, Cosentino said.
The second proposed CRB amendment states that any new proposed amendment “shall not be in conflict with the Florida Constitution, general law, or the Charter.”
As he did during the June 7 public hearing on advertising the July 12 hearing, Bill Van Allen, North County vice chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Sarasota County, called that second amendment “ludicrous on its face,” because any proposal to modify the Charter would conflict with the existing language of the Charter.
The math question
Commissioner Nancy Detert did question Justice and current CRB Chair David Samuel, also of Venice, about the requirement for 10% of the voters in each district to sign a petition before it could get on a ballot.
“In light of Single-Member Districts,” she said, “which has caused a radical change in how people vote and who’s included in voting for the county commissioners and who’s excluded, I think it kind of changes the rules.” While she agreed with the need for voters from each district to sign a petition, she continued, “Why wouldn’t your percentage have been 2% of each district?”
Justice replied that the assumption probably was that 10% of the voters in each district “should amount to 10% of the county.” Yet, he acknowledged, “You have a point that’s valid, too. We didn’t think of that.”
“I can support 2% times five districts,” Detert told him, not 10% times five districts. “I like everything balanced and even.”
Then Chair Alan Maio asked her to think about the fact that, rounded up, the county population is approximately 450,000 people, and around 350,000 are registered voters. (On the morning of July 14, the total was 348,644, the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections website showed.) “Ten percent of that is 35,000 signatures,” he continued. If each district had approximately 70,000 residents — “apportioned out correctly in a redistricting” — then 10% of 70,000, multiplied by five, would be 35,000.
The requirement that the Charter Review Board has proposed, Maio said, “makes sure that one particular district didn’t have an overwhelming percentage, and other districts simply had less than 10% and didn’t want [the amendment].”
County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht confirmed that that was an appropriate explanation.
Shortly before the board voted on placing the amendments on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot, Detert made it clear that she finally understood the math.
The state law question
On July 12, Chief Deputy County Attorney Senkow also explained the results of research that Commissioner Detert had requested following the commission’s June 7 discussion of the amendments.
The proposed amendment calling for a fiscal impact statement also sought to include that statement “below the ballot question on the ballot.”
Detert had questioned the legality of that.
Senkow confirmed that she was correct. Thanks to a February Florida Division of Elections decision, he said, no fiscal impact statement can appear on a ballot.
Thus, Senkow called for the deletion of the relevant sentence in the ordinance on which the commissioners were to vote that day, which would result in the amendments appearing on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot.