Goals would be to ensure amendments would not violate any laws and to make public aware of any potential financial implications
(Editor’s note: This story was updated late in the morning on Feb. 14 to note the names of the Charter Review Board members absent from the Jan. 30 meeting.)
Almost exactly a year ago, they started the process. On Jan. 15, seven members of the Sarasota County Charter Review Board (CRB) voted unanimously to conduct a formal discussion on May 20 regarding proposed county Charter changes that would necessitate the vetting of citizen-initiated amendments for legal sufficiency and any financial ramifications.
As approved by a special committee the board established on Jan. 30, 2019, the draft amendment to Section 7.1 of the county Charter says, “Any proposed amendment shall not conflict with the Florida Constitution, general law, or the Charter.”
The impetus for the board’s efforts, CRB member Donna Barcomb of Sarasota acknowledged on Jan. 15, was the November 2018 passage of two Charter amendments that had been written by Siesta Key resident Michael Cosentino. One — 3.9 — called for the County Commission to rescind its May 2016 vote to vacate a 373-foot-long segment of North Beach Road or reacquire that stretch. The second — 3.10 — prohibited the County Commission from any future right of way vacation or sale of any county-owned property with so much as a “waterfront vista.”
“I don’t think people really thought about, for example, the impact financially” if the amendments won voter approval, Barcomb told her colleagues. The proposed Amendment 3.9 had “no price tag” information, she added.
Barcomb was vice chair of the special committee then-Charter Review Board Chair Anthony Sawyer appointed on Jan. 30, 2019 to review a proposal of then-Vice Chair Joe Justice of North Port. Justice had called for a means of ensuring that “all the pros and cons” of proposed citizen-initiated Charter amendments be aired publicly.
Seven of the 10 Charter Review Board members were present for the Jan. 30 meeting. Those absent were Sawyer, James Gabbert and Neil Rainford, all of Sarasota.
Cosentino has been fighting a 12th Judicial Circuit Court challenge of the two amendments since September 2018. In late October 2019, Circuit Judge Hunter Carroll ruled that Amendment 3.9 “is contrary to Sarasota’s Charter and is therefore invalid.” He then ordered that the first sentence of Amendment 3.10 be severed from the remainder of that section, writing that its opening statement conflicts with state law.
A hearing has been set for Feb. 18 on a motion filed by Sarasota County and two sets of property owners on North Beach Road, seeking a final judgment from the court that would result in the formal dismissal of the Cosentino Charter amendment litigation at the Circuit Court level.
Cosentino has vowed to take the case to the Florida Supreme Court if necessary, alleging that actions of the Office of the County Attorney led to the questions regarding the legality of the amendments.
During the Jan. 15 discussion, Barcomb stressed of the proposed amendment to Charter Section 7.1, “This has nothingto do with Single-Member Districts.”
She was referring to another Charter amendment approved in November 2018. It says that only voters who reside in the same district as candidates for the Sarasota County Commission may cast ballots for those candidates. Previously, all candidates for open seats on the commission were elected countywide.
The Charter Review Board members are “not necessarily trying to make it more difficult [for a citizen-initiated Charter amendment to get on a ballot],” Barcomb emphasized. “What we’re trying to do is educate the electorate. So we wanted to make sure the constituents of Sarasota [County] understood what they were voting for; not to tell them how to vote …”
Chair Richard Dorfman of Sarasota talked of paid petition gatherers who go out and ask voters for their signatures. “I guarantee you 90% of those people signing have no clue what [sponsors are] asking for, and the [petition gatherer] has no clue on how to explain it, because [such situations have] happened time and time again [to me].”
If, after their discussion on May 20, they agree to conduct a public hearing on a proposed amendment to Section 7.1, then that hearing would be advertised for their Oct. 14 session, Assistant County Attorney Sarah Blackwell told the Charter Review Board members.
Oct. 14 is the date of their next meeting after the one on May 20, according to their schedule for this year.
The May and October meetings will be held at 6 p.m. in the County Commission Chambers of the Sarasota County Administration Center, which is located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota, according to information on the Charter Review Board’s webpage.
Other requirements of the draft amendment
Among other facets of the draft Charter amendment the Charter Review Board addressed on Jan. 30, it would require that any citizen-initiated petition drive for a change to the Charter gain the signatures of at least 10 percent of the number of registered voters in each of the five County Commission districts as of the last general election.
Further, it says that, before obtaining any signatures, the sponsor of a petition must submit a “Charter amendment petition form to the county.” Then, after the sponsor has collected validated signatures of 1% of the registered voters of the county as of the last general election, the proposed amendment “shall be reviewed for legal sufficiency” as well as for any potential fiscal impact. Both reviews are to be completed within 30 days following the sponsor’s submission to the county of a notice from the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office that the sponsor has met the signature threshold.
Then, if the proposed amendment is found to be legally sufficient, the draft says, it may proceed. If it is found to be legally insufficient, the draft adds, the amendment “may not be placed on the ballot. A description of the legal deficiencies shall be provided to the sponsor of the petition,” the draft points out.
If the proposed amendment makes it to the ballot, a “fiscal impact statement of no more than 75 words prepared by the County … would appear below the ballot question on the ballot.”
The draft also calls for the sponsor of a petition to appear at a Charter Review Board meeting to present the proposed amendment to that board.
Assistant County Attorney Blackwell, who serves as an advisor to the board, suggested the draft “needs a little bit of tweaking” in the section regarding a sponsor’s presentation to the Charter Review Board. For example, she continued, would that appearance be required before the amendment could go on the ballot? “Do you want to make it a ‘condition precedent?’” she asked the members.
Blackwell noted, for example, that it might not be possible to schedule a presentation in time to get a proposed amendment on the ballot, or the board members could lack a quorum the evening of a planned presentation and therefore be unable to make a formal decision on whether the amendment should be on the ballot.
Questions, answers and suppositions
During the Jan. 15 discussion, Charter Review Board member Pat Wayman of Venice said of the draft, “It … seems really cumbersome on the person who’s doing the petition [drive] … because they get 1%; then, they turn [those voter signatures] in for verification. Then they have to go out and get 10% [of voters’ signatures in each district].”
The legal sufficiency and fiscal impact reviews could wait until the petition drive had met the 10% threshold, Blackwell responded. However, she pointed out, after all the effort was put into gaining the signatures, “[the proposed amendment could end up] dead in the water for some reason …”
That was why the 1% mark was included in the draft language, Blackwell said.
“If you can’t reach a minimal threshold,” Chair Dorfman added, “why go through the rest of the exercise? … It’s actually better for the petitioner. He’s going to get an answer sooner if he can’t get to 1%”
“He or she,” Wayman corrected Dorfman, “would know that right off.”
Still, Wayman continued, “I’m not real happy with the changes, as you can probably tell. … We need to support our people in a little better manner. I just think this is too much to ask them to do.”
“Look at the situation we’re in right now,” Dorfman responded. “We had a number of [Florida] constitutional amendments and Charter amendments [on the November 2018 General Election ballot] that are now under legal challenge, because … people didn’t understand what they were voting for.”
“I agree that somebody needs to be helping [the sponsors] write [the amendments] in the first place,” Wayman told Dorfman. “Why don’t we just do that upfront?”
“They can come before this Charter Review Board,” member Joseph “Jody” Hudgins of Sarasota pointed out. “We can hear [the proposed amendment]; they can present their case; we can vet it; and they don’t have to go to the trouble of 1% or 10%,” he added.
“If you think about the wasted resources of where we are right now,” Hudgins said, “this corrects it.”
Justice, chair of the special committee, explained that he and the other members adapted the draft amendment from similar measures approved in other counties.
“When they submit the petition [to county staff], and before the election, [the Charter Review Board members would] vet the petition and put the pros and cons out there, because, usually, when you see the petition,” Justice added, “the information on there is only what the petitioner wants you … to see.”
“And we could ask questions,” Justice continued, “and if there’s something in [the proposed amendment] that really isn’t right, we could bring it out.”
The draft Charter Review Board amendment “does notstop [a sponsor] from filing a petition and letting it go forward, unless it’s illegal,” Justice stressed.
Charter Review Board member David Samuel of Venice first asked who would create the form the sponsor would have to use for submitting a petition to the county.
“The county will create it,” Justice replied.
Then Samuel asked who would vet the proposed amendment for legal sufficiency. “The Office of the County Attorney?”
“Probably so,” Justice responded.
County administrative staff — or staff of any department whose operations could be affected by the amendment — likely would handle the fiscal review, Justice added.
When Samuel asked who would be responsible for the expense of those reviews, Justice told him that county employees are “paid on a daily basis” for their work.
However, Assistant County Attorney Blackwell referred to the adage, “Time is money,” as staff members would be spending time addressing the new work, in addition to their regular responsibilities.