Charter Review Board to discuss Single-Member Districts issues during May 19 meeting

County Commission Chair Maio reports on letter he sent to board’s chair

The majority of the county’s Charter Review Board members are present as the July 22, 2020 meeting gets underway. Several new members were elected in November 2020. File image

On May 19, the Sarasota County Charter Review Board will discuss the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment that won voter approval on the November 2018 General Election ballot.

The chair of that elected board, Joe Justice of North Port, confirmed that in an April 23 email to County Commission Chair Alan Maio.

A day earlier — on April 22 — county staff emailed a letter from Maio to Justice. Maio wrote that his colleagues had authorized him to request “that the Sarasota County Charter Review Board “consider the provisions of 2.1.A of our charter which were changed in 2018.”

Maio included the wording of the Charter amendment and then noted, “Part of our concern as a Commission is the restriction placed on voters, limiting the voter’s ability to vote for all five of their County Commissioners. While we strongly respect the will of the voters, we think a review of the impacts two years later would be value added.”

In his April 23 response, Justice wrote, “This item was going to be on the agenda for our next meeting to be discussed.”

Justice also told Maio, “If you care to attend [the May 19 session] to bring out any specific points of view for us to consider you are welcome to attend our meeting.”

Maio reported that invitation to his colleagues during their May 4 meeting. He added that he did not plan to appear at the Charter Review Board session, unless the other commissioners expressed a desire for him to do so. None did. In fact, no one commented on that.

Charter Review Board Chair Joe Justice. File image

The Charter Review Board session is scheduled for 6 p.m. on May 19 in the Commission Chambers of the County Administration Center located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota. The Sarasota News Leader previously reported that it would be conducted at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice, as noted on the Charter Review Board’s agenda for its January meeting and a schedule on the webpages for that board. However, County Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester advised the News Leader this week that the session had been relocated to Sarasota.

Construction has been underway for months at the R.L. Anderson facility, as workers add new courtroom facilities and modify other county offices.

Redistricting and continued frustrations

Close to 60% of the county voters who addressed the Single-Member Districts amendment during the November 2018 General Election approved it. The amendment limits citizens to voting only for candidates for County Commission who reside in the same district where they live. Previously, all county commissioners were elected countywide.

Since the measure became part of the Charter, county commissioners — and Charter Review Board members — have taken opportunities to discuss their concerns that the voters did not understand what its ramifications would be.

A nonprofit organization, Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE), worked to gain the necessary voter signatures to get the initiative on the ballot.

In October 2020, the Charter Review Board (CRB) members voted unanimously to approve a proposed change to the Charter that would require the sponsor of a citizen-initiated amendment to appear before them to explain the purpose of the measure. Then-CRB member Donna Barcomb insisted that that proposal was not related to Single-Member Districts. Instead, she talked of the fact that numerous amendments were on the November 2018 General Election ballot, and “Not everyone was fully informed about the ins and outs of [them].” This proposed amendment is “for edification purposes,” Barcomb added.

These are the members of the Sarasota County Charter Review Board. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Because of the timing of the CRB members’ vote last year, their proposed amendment could not appear on the November 2020 General Election ballot. According to Section 7.1 of the county Charter, any recommendations of the CRB “shall be submitted to the voters at a referendum election to be held concurrently with the next general election.” Therefore, the measure is expected to be on the November 2022 ballot.

In 2019, county commissioners cited the Single-Member Districts amendment as their reason for redrawing the boundaries of their five districts.

Commissioner Nancy Detert first broached the idea of the need to rebalance the population counts in the districts before the revised voting method went into effect for the 2020 election. As a result, the county hired a Tallahassee consultant to facilitate the process.

The new districts won commission approval on a 3-2 vote in November 2019. Commissioners Charles Hines and Christian Ziegler cast the “No” votes. Ziegler had maintained that the board members should await the 2020 Census data before undertaking redistricting. Hines objected to the relocation of much of the traditionally African American community of Newtown, in the city of Sarasota, from District 1 to District 2.

Opponents of the redrawing of the boundaries contended that that board decision was planned to boost the chances of Commissioner Michael Moran, who represented District 1, to win re-election in 2020. All the commissioners are Republicans. A number of Newtown residents and representatives of that community who addressed the commissioners during the redistricting discussions talked about the fact that Newtown voters typically cast ballots for Democratic candidates.

Commissioner Ziegler represents District 2.

The board terms are staggered, so Districts 1, 3 and 5 were up for election during 2020. Voters in Districts 2 and 4, therefore, were unable to participate in the 2020 commission elections.

The Charter Review Board’s homepage on the county website offers details about its composition and functions. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Commissioners have stressed on several occasions that constituents expressed confusion to them about being unable to vote in all three races on the 2020 ballot.

During an April 20 discussion about the issue, Moran emphasized the need to educate county citizens about the consequences of the passage of the Single-Member Districts amendment. In making the motion to request the Charter Review Board’s informal review of the voting system, Moran talked of his desire “to take a reboot here.”

County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht pointed out that, as the Charter Review Board members all are elected officials, as well, the County Commission could not direct them to take any specific action.

Elbrecht also noted that the commissioners themselves could approve an ordinance to place an amendment on the ballot to remove the Single-Member Districts voting system from the Charter.

After Moran made his motion, he pointed out, “I was purposefully trying to have it incredibly vague to let [the Charter Review Board members] have their discussion” and then provide a report to the County Commission. “Depending on the results of that,” Moran said, “it might change our direction.”