Results of survey to be presented to commissioners during Sept. 28 regular meeting
During its regular meeting on Sept. 28, the Sarasota County Commission is scheduled to hear the results of the annual Citizen Opinion Survey, which typically covers a host of topics related to the quality of life in the community and county services.
One of the questions this has sparked outrage from county residents who support the Single-Member Districts election system that voters approved during the November 2018 General Election. (Formally, those who cast ballots in favor of the measure ensured its addition to the Sarasota County Charter.)
Under the Single-Member Districts system, a citizen can cast a ballot only for a County Commission candidate who lives in the same district as the citizen. Previously, all commissioners were elected countywide.
A Single-Member District system was implemented in the early 1990s. However, Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck, president of the nonprofit Control Growth Now, asserts that, after it was in use for a couple of years, developers backed an initiative that led to its elimination through another referendum.
In May, Commissioner Nancy Detert asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to make certain that a question about the voting system would be placed on this year’s Citizen Opinion Survey, which a random sampling of county residents completes.
According to a copy of the 2021 survey that a nonpartisan county group called Citizens for District Power received through a public records request, the question — No. 36 — was written as follows:
“Sarasota County now operates with single-member districts. This means that the county is divided into separate geographic areas, creating districts, and each district is represented by only one commissioner. In the next election, Sarasota County residents will now only be able to vote for the one county commissioner that will represent the district they live in. Please tell me how much you approve or disapprove of your ability to vote for one county commissioner for your district.
⎯ “Strongly disapprove
⎯ “Strongly approve
⎯ “Unsure/[Do not know]/[Not available]/Refused”
In a press release that Citizens for District Power released earlier this month, it pointed out that three of the five county commissioners were elected with the Single-Member Districts [SMD] system in November 2020. Thus, the method is not new.
Moreover, the organization contended, “[I]t is inappropriate to question residents about a voting method that is essentially untested. Districts 2 and 4 [with approximately 165,000 county residents] won’t elect Commissioners by [single-member districts] until November, 2022.”
The Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE) spearheaded the initiative to get the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment on the November 2018 ballot.
Kindra Muntz, president of SAFE, told The Sarasota News Leader in late April that the expense of countywide elections was a primary reason people had been reluctant to campaign for board seats. “In 2020, for the first time in decades,” she added, “qualified local candidates of both major political parties competed to represent their district to serve on the County Commission. That competition was good for the voters and good for the county.”
The Citizens for District Power press release also argued, “The placement of response options following the SMD question puts a thumb on the scale. Do survey responses typically begin with a negative option, i.e., Strongly disapprove?”
Then the press release said, “Question #36 has more in common with politically manipulative ‘push polls’ than with fact-finding. The County Commission appears to be building a case to reverse the citizens’ Charter Amendment that created Single Member Districts in 2018. Is this an attempt to return to business as usual — where direct accountability is lacking, and where costly county-level campaigns are funded significantly by local developers?”
Further, Citizens for District Power asserted in the release,
“The [Citizen Opinion Survey] is less of an information gathering tool to ‘give citizens a voice in county policy’ than a series of questions asking residents how they ‘feel,’ or what they ‘believe,’ without providing facts for respondents to consider in offering opinions.”
Commissioner Detert and her colleagues on the board have remained adamant that most citizens did not realize the ramifications of their votes in 2018, because those citizens did not understand how Single-Member Districts would function.
As of the deadline for this issue of the News Leader, the Sept. 28 County Commission meeting agenda was not available. The board will meet at the County Administration Center located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in Sarasota.
The News Leader learned through its own public records request that the Citizen Opinion Survey cost the county $89,045 this year.
The Charter Review Board request
The county commissioners also have asked the county’s Charter Review Board to examine the Single-Member Districts voting method. The members of that board heard comments on the topic from 45 speakers during their May 19 session. The News Leader calculated that 80% of those who addressed the board voiced support for the Charter amendment. A number of them referenced county commissioners’ comments over the past year, telling the Charter Review Board members, “We know exactly what we voted for.”
Following all the remarks, Chair Joe Justice of Venice said the board could not take up a formal discussion of the matter until its next meeting, at the earliest, which would be Oct. 20. He cited the Charter Review Board’s bylaws as the reason.
On a unanimous motion, Justice and his colleagues agreed to add the item to the Oct. 20 agenda.
Although the Charter Review Board’s webpages do not indicate the location of that meeting next month, given the ongoing construction of new court facilities at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice, it is most likely that the session will be conducted at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota.