Citizen-initiated petition drives at heart of County Commission proposals to amend the county Charter

One amendment would raise signature threshold from 5% to 10% of registered voters, while another would place all successful measures on General Election ballots

The May 2017 edition of the Sarasota County Charter is available through the Office of the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller. Image courtesy of the Clerk’s Office

With a unanimous vote, the Sarasota County Commission has approved draft language for a number of changes to the Sarasota County Charter involving citizen-initiated petition drives.

Among the changes would be increasing the percentage of signatures of registered voters necessary to place a citizen-initiated measure on a ballot. The current level of 5% would double, to 10%. Two other proposals call not only for a specific time limit for citizen-initiated petition drives to gain enough signatures, but also a requirement that all petitions be submitted at one time to the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office.

Additionally, all citizen-initiated, proposed Charter changes — as well as any proposed by the county’s Charter Review Board — would henceforth be placed on a November General Election ballot. That would save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses for special elections, the commissioners agreed.

On July 11, the board members voted unanimously to direct the Office of the County Attorney and County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to provide the appropriate public notice for the series of amendments to be considered during an Aug. 29 public hearing.

After Commissioner Michael Moran launched the discussion on July 10, the board members spent time during both of their meetings last week going over the issues they said they felt needed to be addressed in the Charter.

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh proposed the idea that all petitions be submitted at once to the Supervisor of Elections Office. As it stands under the Charter process, the staff of the Supervisor of Elections Office verifies signatures on petitions whenever those are submitted to that office.

“I think it’s valuable to create a system of clarity, knowing dates, knowing what happens … and how these things are supposed to be processed,” DeMarsh said of the draft amendment language he reviewed with the commissioners on July 11.

DeMarsh had explained on July 10 that the Sarasota County Charter does not provide a timeline for the ending of citizen-initiated petition drives.

“That’s crazy,” Chair Nancy Detert pointed out.

The current county Charter provisions make it possible for a three-and-a-half-year-old signature, for example, to be counted toward the necessary percentage for a measure to make it on a ballot, DeMarsh noted. Yet, the signer of the petition could have dropped off the voter rolls or died in that length of time, he said on July 11.

“I think there’s an advantage to having the … validation of the signatures” when all of them are provided at one time to the supervisor of elections, DeMarsh added.

The Florida Statutes provide for two years for any citizen-initiated constitutional amendment, DeMarsh pointed out.

The board members also concurred with another suggestion DeMarsh made on July 11. The draft language he presented them calls for all the petitions to be turned in to the Supervisor of Elections Office between Jan. 1 and April 1 of the year of the General Election in which the citizens group wishes to get a measure on the November ballot. Signatures would need to be certified by July 1 of 2020, for example, for a measure to get on the November 2020 General Election ballot.

Backers of a proposed Charter amendment would be able to start their petition drive the day following a General Election, DeMarsh explained, in preparation for getting their proposed changes on the next General Election ballot, in two years.

“I am shocked to know that we have an unlimited number [of years] locally [for a petition drive],” Detert said. “I just want to make sure we close … what I consider a ridiculous loophole, that [the timeline is] forever.”

“Yes, I agree,” DeMarsh replied.

On July 10, she had pointed out, “What I’m looking for is fairness, commonsense and common practices and, hopefully, we’re in line with the state statutes.”

An airing of concerns

Commissioner Mike Moran. File photo

Moran raised his concerns about citizen-initiated petition drives during the Board Reports part of the July 10 meeting. That morning, Detert had pulled from the commission’s Consent Agenda of routine business issues two items involving such drives. The board was required to vote to hold public hearings on proposed ordinances to place those issues on the Nov. 6 ballot, because each drive had secured the necessary 5% of signatures of registered voters, as verified by the Supervisor of Elections Office.

The first two involve the commission’s May 11, 2016 vacation of a 357-foot-long segment of North Beach Road on Siesta Key. The third calls for changing the county Charter so voters in County Commission elections may cast their ballots only for a candidate in the district in which the voters live. (See the related story in this issue.) The current Charter language provides for every voter to be able to cast a ballot for each County Commission candidate running for office.

As he understood it, Moran told his colleagues on July 10, if they wished to place a proposed Charter amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot, they would have to hold a public hearing on the issue on Aug. 29, when the other proposed Charter amendment ordinances would be considered. That timeline is necessary, he said, for the supervisor of elections to get the questions on the Nov. 6 ballot, given the necessity of mailing ballots to county residents — including military personnel — who are overseas.

DeMarsh affirmed the need for action no later than Aug. 29.

Then Moran noted that, during the commission’s budget workshops, Commissioner Paul Caragiulo had talked with Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner about the expense of special elections.

“A countywide election is 1, very expensive,” Caragiulo responded, “and, 2, there’s not a whole lot of participation [of voters].” (The latter issue has been the primary focus of a citizens drive to allow City of Sarasota voters to change their election cycle from March and May of odd-numbered years to August and November of even-numbered years.)

Turner pointed out on June 19 that a special election costs about $400,000.

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo. File photo

“It’s not unreasonable,” Caragiulo said — given that expense — for the commission to want to see citizen-initiated measures appear on a General Election ballot.

Along with the expense, Caragiulo noted, special elections necessitate ensuring polling places can be secured and a sufficient number of poll workers can be available.

On July 10, the commissioners voted unanimously to ask DeMarsh to draft proposed new Charter language calling for the switch for citizen-proposed amendments to be on November General Election ballots.

Then Moran explained that he had undertaken research into the percentages of voter signatures required in other charter counties to get citizen-proposed amendments on the ballot. “We are the lowest in the state for the number of required signatures,” Moran said. The state statutes require 10% of registered voters’ signatures, he added.

When Commissioner Charles Hines asked for more details from Moran’s research, Moran replied that Brevard, Volusia and Lee counties, like Sarasota County, call for only 5%. One rural county has a 30% threshold, Moran noted.

Charlotte has a 10% requirement, Moran added.

That is the same as the figure for citizen-initiated drives in the City of Sarasota, Caragiulo pointed out.

“I think 10% is a nice fair number,” Caragiulo added.

By consensus, the board members asked DeMarsh to include that proposed change in the draft language, as well.

When DeMarsh presented the draft amendments to the commissioners on July 11, Detert asked him whether he had conferred with Supervisor of Elections Turner about them.

Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner. Image from www.sarasotavotes.com

“I spent a lot of time” speaking to him this year, DeMarsh said, regarding how Turner’s office handles citizen-initiated petitions. DeMarsh did speak with Turner again before completing the draft, DeMarsh added, to make sure that the timeline proposed “would give [him] sufficient time to verify signatures.”

DeMarsh was referring to the April 1 deadline for petitions to be submitted to get on the November General Election ballot the same year.

When Detert asked whether the Supervisor of Elections Office staff samples signatures on citizen-initiated petitions, DeMarsh explained that Turner is “looking at every signature. … He’s been doing them in batches and working through them. It’s lawful, but it doesn’t create any certainty to when the process begins, when it ends, how long a petition’s valid,” DeMarsh added.

One ballot question or more?

This is the section of the county Charter for which the changes are proposed. Image courtesy Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller

Finally, DeMarsh asked the commissioners whether they wanted to split the proposed amendments into more than one ballot question.

“I’d like to keep it all together,” Detert responded, “because it’s all single-subject.”

“There’s no legal reason why you’d have to have multiple questions [on the ballot], because they’re all within the same part of the Charter,” DeMarsh explained.

Commissioner Hines asked whether the board members could decide to split them up after the August public hearing, if comments indicated that would be better.

“Yes,” DeMarsh replied, adding that he felt the public would have sufficient notice about the matters to be discussed on Aug. 29 to make such a split lawful.

With consensus from the commissioners, DeMarsh said he would work on the ballot summary for all the proposed changes. “I just have to hope I can get this in 75 words.”

State law requires a ballot summary to be no longer than 75 words.

Commissioner Moran made the motion to authorize DeMarsh and/or County Administrator Lewis to provide proper notice to the public of the changes the members had agreed to — in one ballot question — and Commissioner Caragiulo seconded it. Then the motion passed unanimously.

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