County charter amendment approved for Nov. 6 ballot

Photo by Norman Schimmel

A Sarasota County Charter amendment that will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot would save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars if approved, the vice chairman of the Charter Review Board indicated in comments to the County Commission on Aug. 21.

If the majority of voters support that amendment, the county no longer will have to schedule a special election for future amendments to the charter proposed by the Charter Review Board itself, Charles A. Cooper said.

That would mean an approximate savings of up to $400,000 per special election, he pointed out.

The County Commission voted unanimously to put the amendment on the November ballot, although Chairwoman Christine Robinson first clarified with Deputy County Attorney Kathleen Schneider that it was “a perfunctory vote.”

“Some people are confused about our role in this,” Robinson said

Schneider pointed out that the County Commission was obligated to place the amendment before the voters, because of provisions of the county charter.

Cooper told the commission that Section 7.1 of the county charter calls for amendments proposed by citizen petition, by special law of the Florida Legislature and by ordinance approved by the County Commission to be submitted to the voters during a special election within 60 days after the filing of the proposed amendment with the supervisor of elections.

That same charter section, he said, provided for amendments proposed by the Charter Review Board to go to the voters during a referendum held concurrently with the next countywide election.

Former Charter Review Board member Debbie Trice had proposed about two years ago that Section 7.1 be amended to allow for any proposed charter amendment, regardless of its source of origin, to go on the ballot for the next general election, provided the paperwork for the amendment has been filed with the supervisor of elections at least 120 days prior to the date of that next general election.

Completing the necessary actions to hold a special election within 60 days “is almost an impossibility,” Cooper said.

Public comment offered on the changes also indicated all petitions for charter amendments should be handled in the same manner, he said.

It was “after much deliberation,” he added, that the Charter Review Board chose to recommend the charter change to get rid of the special election option.

He pointed out, “A special election typically has low voter turnout. A general election has historically provided the greatest voter turnout.”

Therefore, Cooper said, the Charter Review Board suggested amendments go on the ballot during general elections.

Cooper added that the Charter Review Board had discussed the potential changes during 10 meetings, all of which had been advertised properly.

Commissioner Nora Patterson told Cooper the amendment language was not clear to her in regard to the 120-day provision. If a proposed amendment could not meet that deadline to get on the ballot for an upcoming general election, she asked, would it have to wait two years for the next general election?

“Yes,” Cooper told her. While that was not explicit in the proposed amendment, he added, he felt it was a logical conclusion.

“It wasn’t clear [an amendment] would have a place [on the ballot] two years later,” Patterson said in reiterating her point.

“Well, that certainly is the intent,” Cooper said.

If any ambiguity about the timeline arose when a future amendment was proposed, Schneider said, that could be cleared up in discussions before the Charter Review Board or the County Commission.

“If the lawyers say it’s fine the way it is,” Patterson said of the amendment language, “then that’s fine.”

When Commissioner Jon Thaxton asked, “Are we then to anticipate that this charter amendment will be on the upcoming November ballot?” Cooper said that was correct, because the 60-day provision still was in effect.

One other section of the amendment would clarify ambiguous language in the charter, Cooper explained. The new language would make it clear that any amendment approved by the voters would go into effect as soon as the election result was certified by the state Division of Elections.

Vice Chairwoman Carolyn Mason moved approval of an ordinance to put the amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot. Patterson seconded the motion.

No one spoke during the public hearing the County Commission held prior to the discussion.