City Commission to discuss successful petition drive calling for referendum on changing city election cycle

Agenda item set for June 4 in the evening

The City Commission sits in session on May 21. News Leader photo

On the evening of June 4, the Sarasota city commissioners are scheduled to make their formal decision about letting citizens decide when future city elections will be conducted.

On May 18, Decide the Date Sarasota — which describes itself as “a grassroots, bipartisan petition campaign” — announced that “it had succeeded in collecting the required number of petitions to ask city voters, on a November referendum ballot, whether they desire to change the date of City Commission elections to coincide with federal, state, county, and district elections.”

“City elections currently take place in March and May of odd-numbered years when no other elections are held,” said Decide the Date Sarasota Co-Chair and former Sarasota Mayor Suzanne Atwell, in the press release. “A great majority of Sarasota residents don’t know when to vote,” she added in the release. “The goal of this initiative is simple: Let Sarasota city voters decide in a November election if it makes sense to hold local elections at the same time as county, state, and federal primary and general elections.”

Begun in late December 2017, the drive collected 4,732 valid petitions, the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office confirmed for The Sarasota News Leaderthis week. The figure exceeded by 996 the 3,736 petitions required for the Office of the City Auditor and Clerk to certify that the petition drive was a success, the news release pointed out.

Former Sarasota Mayor Suzanne Atwell. File photo

In a May 18 letter to City Auditor and Clerk Pamela Nadalini, Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner explained that the petition threshold the group had to meet represented 10% of the total number of people qualified to vote in the preceding at large-city election, which was held last year.

The June 4 City Commission agenda material says, “In accordance with City Charter Article X. Charter Amendments, Section 1(a)(2): “‘If the required number of signatures is obtained within the one hundred eighty (180) days thereafter, then the fully signed petition may be subsequently submitted to the office of the city auditor and clerk, who shall place the petition on a regular or special meeting agenda for presentation to the city commission.’” The law calls for the City Commission to adopt an ordinance within 60 days after the petition initially has been presented to the commission, setting the date of the referendum; providing for the ballot language; and providing for the date the amendment would go into effect if voters approve it.

The discussion is scheduled under New Businessduring the evening session, which will begin at 6 p.m. in the City Commission Chambers inside City Hall, located at 1565 First St. in downtown Sarasota. The item is the last one on the agenda before adjournment.

The petitions were turned in to the Supervisor of Elections Office within five months, one month before the end of the 180-day certification period provided for in the City Charter, the Decide the Date news release said.

“Voter turnout for spring city elections is notoriously abysmal,” Sarasota resident Larry Eger, the public defender for the 12th Judicial Circuit and the other co-chair of the Decide the Date Sarasota initiative, noted in the news release. “Having surpassed the required number of signatures by such a large margin in so little time speaks to the popularity of giving Sarasota voters a choice as to when they want to hold their elections. We look forward to voters deciding this issue this November.”

When Atwell and Eger announced the organization of Decide the Date Sarasota last year, they pointed to the voter turnout figures for the at-large city elections held in March and May of 2017, comparing them to the number of ballots cast during the November 2016 General Election.

In the March 2017 City Commission election for two at-large seats, voter turnout was 19.14%, or 7,194 of the 37,579 registered city voters, the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office reported on its website.

During the May runoff among election newcomers Jen Ahearn-Koch, Hagen Brody and Martin Hyde, 22.86% of the 37,365 registered voters at that time cast ballots, for a turnout of 22.86%, the Supervisor of Elections Office data show. Ahearn-Koch and Brody were elected in that runoff.

In the November 2016 General Election, 77.32% of all registered county voters cast ballots, the Supervisor of Elections Office reported.

The language in red is among the changes proposed for the City Charter regarding primaries, if elections are moved to November. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Among the supporters of the Decide the Date campaign are the Sarasota NAACP, the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, the Argus Foundation, the Sarasota Chapter of the ACLU, the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, ACLU Florida, The Realtor Association of Sarasota and Manatee and the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association, the release added.

The Decide the Date organization also has pointed to the cost of the city elections conducted during the spring. In October 2017, Commissioner Brody cited an expense of $120,000 for the March and May votes that year. However, in response to a News Leaderinquiry, Deputy City Auditor and Clerk Karen McGowan reported that the city spent $88,692.85 on the 2017 at-large election, based on all the records associated with the expense, she said.

For more information on the Decide the Date initiative, including proposed language to amend the Charter of the City of Sarasota, as well as FAQs, visit www.DecideTheDate.com.

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