Board members vote unanimously to send issue back to County Commission
With 19 out of 20 speakers making clear their support for the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment that won voter approval in November 2018, the members of the Sarasota County Charter Review Board on Oct. 20 did what many of those speakers urged: They voted unanimously to postpone indefinitely any discussion of repealing the amendment.
David Samuel of Venice, chair pro tem of the Charter Review Board, made the motion, which also called for returning the issue to the County Commission for its consideration.
Kennedy Legler of Sarasota seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously.
Board members James Gabbert and Richard Dorfman of Sarasota were absent from the meeting, which was conducted at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice. Another member of the board, Scott Williams — who was elected in November 2020 — resigned in late June, The Sarasota News Leader learned from Charlie Maloney, supervisor of the Board Records Department for Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller Karen Rushing.
Following the speakers’ remarks on Oct. 20, Samuel referenced comments about the importance of commissioners being accountable to the public. An argument that he has heard, Samuel continued, is that commissioners elected at-large “are accountable to everyone in the county,” whereas those elected by the Single-Member District system have to answer only to their constituents in a solitary district.
As rumblings began among audience members, Samuel quickly added, “I’m here to listen to all your viewpoints.”
Then he announced, “I think it would be apropos for this group to vote” on returning the issue of the future of Single-Member District voting to the commission.
At board member Alexandra Coe’s suggestion, Samuel amended his initial motion to call for the Charter Review Board to postpone indefinitely any discussion of the issue and send it back to the County Commission.
Legler readily agreed to the amendment.
After the clerk to the board called the roll for the votes, applause broke out in the chambers.
“I guess we’re popular again,” Chair Joe Justice said.
In response to a Sarasota News Leader public records request this week, the emails found through a county Information Technology staff search show that Justice did try to contact County Commission Chair Alan Maio about the board action on Oct. 20. However, the email never was delivered to Maio.
Justice wrote, “In regards to your letter to the Charter Review Board to consider Single Member Districts the Charter Review Board at our meeting on Oct. 20, 2021 voted to send this request back to the County Commission for their consideration.”
During the Oct. 20 meeting, both Legler and Coe of Sarasota — who also won their seats during the November 2020 General Election — talked of reading all of the emails that members of the public had sent the board members.
“Thank you very much,” Legler told the audience.
“I think we all got the emails,” Justice said.
In late April, following another County Commission discussion during which members derided the Single-Member Districts voting system, Commissioner Michael Moran made a motion, seconded by Maio, calling for the Charter Review Board “to revisit” the Charter amendment.
(Although the Charter Review Board can propose amendments to the Sarasota County Charter, to be considered during referenda, the County Commission has the same authority — a fact that some of the speakers pointed out during the Charter Review Board meeting last week.)
During their May 19 meeting, the Charter Review Board members heard 45 speakers address the commission’s request, detailed in an April 22 letter from Maio; by count of the News Leader, only eight of them expressed opposition to Single-Member Districts. However, following the comments that night, Justice announced that the board’s bylaws prevented any discussion of the issue at that time. The board would have to wait until its Oct. 20 session to take it up, he added.
In the meantime, the county commissioners also asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to ensure that the 2021 Citizen Opinion Survey include a question about Single-Member Districts, with the goal of determining how many of the respondents understood the measure that was placed on the November 2018 ballot. As it turned out, the University of South Florida Institute of Government team that handled the survey found that a plurality of the 1,250 respondents not only understood the system but voiced support for it.
An abundance of advocacy
During the Oct. 20 Charter Review Board meeting, the very first speaker, Pat Rounds of Sarasota, noted the Citizen Opinion Survey result. Rounds also stressed that the results of the November 2018 election showed that 60% of the voters — “across all five [County Commission] districts and across party affiliations” — were in favor of Single-Member Districts.
Yet, after only one election with that system in use, she said, the county commissioners were working to eliminate it.
“Single-Member Districts is not on a trial run,” Rounds emphasized. “It’s now in our local constitution. It should be embraced, not reversed.”
The next speaker, William Zoller of Sarasota, talked of the letter that Maio sent to Justice in April, requesting the review of the Charter amendment. “I’m wondering what the reason is [the commissioners] want to hide behind your skirts to do the dirty work for ’em,” Zoller told the Charter Review Board members.
“Your studies typically drag on for quite a while,” Zoller pointed out, before adding that perhaps the commissioners viewed that prospective period of deliberation as time for them to “propagandize against Single-Member Districts.”
Yet, Zoller added, when they tried to employ the Citizen Opinion Survey as a means of propaganda against the voting system, “That backfired on them.”
“Is there truly any reason to go into a lengthy thing like this just to figure out a way to oppose the will of the voters?” Zoller asked. “Stand up for yourselves,” he told the Charter Review Board members. “You’re duly elected,” just as the commissioners are. “You’re not beholden to the County Commission, nor do you take … direction from the County Commission.”
Kindra Muntz, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Districts (SAFE), which worked to get the Single-Member Districts amendment on the November 2018 ballot, stressed the 60% vote of support for the commission election measure. “That’s like a landslide in Sarasota County.”
Muntz also pointed out that Commissioner Christian Ziegler “is the most vocal opponent of Single-Member Districts, calling it ‘bad governance.’”
Ziegler, she continued, who is the vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida, and state Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota, who is the party chair, “sent three busloads of people from Sarasota County” to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5, for a rally ahead of the Jan. 6 vote in Congress to affirm the results of the November 2020 Presidential Election. Without naming former President Donald Trump, Muntz noted that the Jan. 5 rally was for a “losing presidential candidate who incited a treasonous insurrection at our nation’s Capitol” on Jan. 6.
“Please stick to the subject matter,” Chair Justice admonished her.
Still talking about Ziegler, Muntz said, “The commissioner is hosting rallies that perpetuate the big lie of the loser. That’s what I think is bad governance.”
She told the Charter Review Board members, “I hope you all have respect for elections, for democracy and for the will of the people.”
Marilynne Martin pointed out to the board that the Single-Member District voting system “allows grassroots candidates an opportunity to participate in county government and prevent candidates from winning the vote of their own district and still being able to lose the election.”
Mike Cosentino of Siesta Key noted that only four of the 14 Florida counties bigger than Sarasota County still elect their commissioners at-large.
A 6-inch by 9-inch mailer for a candidate running countywide in Sarasota County costs about $126,000, he continued. Yet, a candidate running for office under the Single-Member Districts system would need to spend only $25,000 to reach voters in his or her district, he added. “It takes the money out and gives a hardworking person the opportunity to knock on doors and effect positive change …”
“This is not about Republicans; this is not about Democrats,” Cosentino added. “What we’re advocating for is responsible and responsive government.”
In that vein, Matthew Soldano of Venice, president of the Republican Club of South Sarasota County, pointed out that, with the Single-Member District system in place, for the first time in 10 years, a commissioner representing South County has attended every meeting of that organization, which has more than 400 members. The commissioner began coming to the sessions as a candidate, Soldano noted. “He’s involved in our discussions.”
(Soldano appeared to be referencing Commissioner Ron Cutsinger, who won the District 5 seat in November 2020.)
Previously, Soldano said, the only times he could recall commissioners at club functions were during holiday celebrations or annual dinners. Cutsinger, Soldano added, is “sure doing a good job of representing us.”
“Sarasota County has simply grown too large for at-large voting,” Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck told the Charter Review Board members. “When you get that big, it’s like having everybody in Florida vote for the entire Florida Legislature. It makes no sense.”
The ‘giant elephant in the room’
During his remarks, Cosentino of Siesta Key also told the Charter Review Board members, “The giant elephant in the room” is the combination of developers and attorneys with big county law firms who support developer-friendly candidates to the County Commission. Single-Member Districts, Cosentino said, “gives somebody outside of the cabal the opportunity to win.”
Like Cosentino, Lobeck asserted that developers are behind the effort to repeal the Single-Member Districts amendment.
During the August 2020 Republican referendum for the District 1 County Commission seat — with Single-Member Districts in place — “Mike Hutchinson [of Sarasota] came within a handful of votes of the developer-picked and the developer-controlled candidate and commissioner, Mike Moran,” Lobeck said.
Newtown Nation representative Valerie Buchand of Sarasota also talked about Moran, noting that the 2019 redistricting map that the County Commission approved moved Newtown voters out of District 1 and into District 2. (Speakers pointed out to the county commissioners in 2019 that Newtown citizens traditionally vote for Democratic candidates. Yet, Moran was running for re-election.)
“They cut Newtown out so the corrupt people could rule,” Buchand said of the commissioners. “We have never, ever had a meeting with Mike ‘Moron,’” she added, eliciting audience laughter, “because he never would come to no meeting that we asked him to [attend]. … That’s the kind of leadership that we have had.”
Referring again to developers, Buchand continued, “If they’ve got you in their pockets, you’d better jump out, because they have did nothing but corrupted our system of the wealthy. Everybody should be important. Everybody!”
“We’re appealing to your hearts … to do what’s right for us,” Buchand told the board members. “We need to be able to choose who represents us.”
She concluded her remarks by saying, “I pray that you send [this issue] back, ’cause, see, [the Bible] tells me that everything that’s not good, you send it to the pits of hell, and that’s where this should go.”
In response to a News Leader request, Muntz of SAFE provided the following statement in response to the Charter Review Board’s action:
“Thanks to timely pressure from the public via emails to Charter Review Board members and speeches from 19 people who supported single member districts for electing County Commissioners at the October 20, 2021 CRB meeting, the Charter Review Board sent the County Commissioners’ request to ‘review’ single member districts, with a view to putting a repeal amendment on the ballot in 2022, back to the Commissioners — to do their own dirty work! Good for the Charter Review Board! See speeches from the October 20th meeting here: https://www.keepdemocracysafe.org/act-now. Only one speaker was opposed. The 19 in favor were people of all political parties — just like the overwhelming majority of voters who passed the single member districts amendment in 2018 and 65% who responded to the County Survey in 2021. People in this county want to keep single member districts! Now, if the Commissioners are bound and determined to try to overturn [Single-Member Districts], they can either call for a Special Election to do so, or put a repeal amendment on the ballot in November 2022. Either way, don’t be snookered by their propaganda to persuade you that you want to ‘vote for all five Commissioners.’ Your power is in voting JUST for the Commissioner who represents your district on the County Commission, not by letting 80% of voters all over the county choose your Commissioner for you. Keep your power with single member districts. See the history of single member districts and join Citizens for District Power at https://www.cdpsarasota.org/.