Commissioners continue to contend that voters did not understand the amendment before it won approval on 2018 General Election ballot
Reprising and expanding upon a discussion they engaged in after the November 2020 General Election, the Sarasota County commissioners this week launched an initiative that could lead to the removal of the Single-Member Districts voting system from the Sarasota County Charter.
On a motion by Commissioner Michael Moran, seconded by Chair Alan Maio, the board members voted unanimously to ask the county’s Charter Review Board “to revisit” the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment that won voter approval on the November 2018 General Election ballot.
The next Charter Review Board meeting has been set for May 19, the county website says. It is to begin at 6 p.m. at the county’s Robert L. Anderson Administration Center, located at 4000 S. Tamiami Trail in Venice.
The Charter Review Board members are themselves elected officials, County Attorney Frederick J. “Rick” Elbrecht explained during the commission’s regular meeting on April 20. However, he added, “There’s nothing to prevent the [commission] from informally asking the Charter Review Board” to review the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment.
Elbrecht also pointed out that the commissioners themselves can approve an ordinance to place an amendment on a ballot.
“We all know that,” Maio responded.
Additionally, Moran acknowledged of the Charter Review Board members, “We can’t tell them to do anything.”
Section 7.1 of the Sarasota County Charter says amendments may be proposed by a petition signed by at least 10% of the number of registered voters in the county; a special law enacted by the Legislature; an ordinance approved by the County Commission; or a Charter Review Board recommendation. Any proposed changes based on an act of the Legislature or a County Commission ordinance “shall be submitted to the voters at a special election to be held within  days after filing of the proposed changes with the Supervisor of Elections, and such changes if approved at the election by the majority vote, shall become a part of this Charter,” the Charter says.
During the April 20 discussion, Moran emphasized the need to educate county citizens about the consequences of the passage of the Single-Member Districts amendment.
However, Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out, “It sounds kind of insulting to say [county citizens] didn’t know what they were voting for. They might have. But now that it’s in effect,” she added of the Single-Member Districts system, people are unhappy with it.
What she and her colleagues “really want to know,” Detert continued, is whether the county’s citizens want to the keep the Single-Member Districts system in place. She characterized that as “You’ve given up your right to vote for every one of us. You can only vote for one of us. Is this best for you?”
Detert also noted that county voters approved the implementation of Single-Member Districts in the 1990s. “After one election,” Detert emphasized, “they decided, ‘This is terrible,’ and they voted to change it back.”
The November 2018 ballot amendment proposed by the nonprofit Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE) calls for citizens who live in the same district as candidates for the County Commission to be able to vote for just those candidates. Citizens are unable to cast ballots for candidates in any other county districts.
Previously, all the commissioners were elected countywide.
In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for comment on the April 20 County Commission discussion, Kindra Muntz, president of Safe wrote the following statement:
“Single Member Districts for electing Sarasota County Commissioners passed resoundingly by voters of all political parties in a 2018 ballot amendment (59.84% vs. 40.16% NO) to make our County Commissioners more accountable to their constituents.
“That was a major success which gave power to the people! In 2020, their votes really counted, because they alone were able to elect the Commissioner to represent their district without having voters countywide with no knowledge of their district tipping the scale. In 2020, for the first time in decades, 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. We need to sustain Single Member Districts and continue to energize voters and prospective qualified candidates of all parties, as well as Independents. Returning to At-Large elections, with the vast cost of campaigning countywide ‘from North Port to the Airport’ would ensure that only developer-backed candidates chosen by the current County Commissioners can win, and the voices of the rest of the people will once again be silenced. Competition is good for all!
“Sarasota County has grown too large for At-large elections. We are the 14th largest of 67 counties in Florida! Our county contains two FULL Florida House Districts, 72 and 74, and part of three others: 70, 71 and 73. 70% of the 16 largest counties use single member districts in whole or in part. If the Charter Review Board or the County Commissioners put a charter amendment on the 2022 ballot to repeal Single Member Districts, it will be time for people in this county to stand up once again for Single Member Districts to make sure their voice and their vote count where it matters: in the district in which they live. Then we can hope to begin to have the accountability needed from our Commissioners, instead of the disregard they too often show to the concerns of the people who live here,” Muntz added.
Alleging a lack of knowledge and venting lots of frustration
On April 20, both Commissioners Moran and Maio talked of discussions they had had with members of the public that made it clear to them, they said, that at least some county residents do not understand how Single-Member Districts functions.
As he did during the Nov. 17, 2020 County Commission meeting, Moran noted that voters approached him in the parking lot of the county’s Terrace Building after those persons had cast ballots in the 2020 General Election. They asked him, Moran continued, why his name was not on their ballots. (Moran was running for re-election to the District 1 seat.)
Moran added that he would explain to them how Single-Member Districts works.
“I’ll chalk it up to a miscommunication,” Moran said, referring to voters’ approval of the Charter amendment in 2018.
His desire, he continued, is “to take a reboot here.”
“I sure hope everybody pays really close attention to this this time around,” Maio told his colleagues.
When he first was elected to the commission, Maio pointed out, he represented only the northern part of Casey Key. The rest of the island was in District 5, which Commissioners Charles Hines represented.
However, since the commissioners’ redrawing of the district boundaries in 2019, Maio continued, his District 4 encompasses all of Casey Key.
After the November 2020 General Election, Maio said, residents of south Casey Key asked him why they were unable to vote for Hines’ successor, as Hines was term-limited and had to step down from the board in 2020.
“It’s not just, I think, disenfranchising people, losing four of their five commission votes,” Maio added of the Single-Member Districts system. “It’s also the strange problem that my district had.”
After he tells constituents how Single-Member Districts functions, Maio pointed out, “Not one of those people walks away very happy. They are upset. … I’m still waiting for that [one] person [to say he or she is happy about the election system], and I’m never going to meet that person, ’cause they can’t possibly be happy” about having a single vote for representation on the County Commission.
Maio added that a review of the consequences of the implementation of Single-Member Districts “is one of our policy initiatives [for 2021].” He was referring to decisions the board members made during their December 2020 retreat.
“What I’m seeing,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler pointed out, is that “a project comes up [in District 2, which he represents], and a citizen either supports it or opposes it. … [That project] is the most important thing to them.” Therefore, Ziegler said, the person calls him to ask him to vote as the person wishes on that matter.
Ziegler added that he tells the person to contact the other board members, as well. “‘You need three votes to be able to have this decision go your way.’”
“Now that [Single-Member Districts has] been imposed,” Ziegler continued, “I think people are starting to open up their eyes …”
Since he was elected countywide, Ziegler pointed out, he considers himself a representative of all county residents. However, he added, if Single-Member Districts remain in effect, through the 2022 election, every commissioner will have been elected by that system. “You’ll start getting these competing districts.
Both the District 2 and District 4 seats will be open that year.
“We’re able to work together,” Ziegler said of himself and his colleagues on the board. “I can’t say that’ll be the case years down the road.”
“I believe Single-Member Districts is a bad form of government,” Ziegler added. “I’ll keep saying that.”
He, too, supports “having a true community conversation” on Single-Member Districts, he said.
How best to proceed
When Maio asked about the potential of a motion seeking a Charter Review Board assessment of the election system, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis stressed, “There’s not a formal process” to seek that board’s action. Yet, “It’s certainly not unacceptable,” Lewis added, for the commissioners to make the request.
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.”
“I think it’s worth mentioning publicly that a majority of this board has no interest in this,” Moran continued. “We’re trying to do this for a discussion for the right reason and good governance.”
“And that’s important,” Maio responded.
Then Maio stressed that he, Moran and Detert are term-limited, having won second terms on the board. “This is not some devilishly clever way for us to get another term.”
After the vote, Detert sought clarification from County Attorney Elbrecht that, to revert to countywide elections of all the commissioners, another amendment would have to be placed on an upcoming ballot to remove the Single-Member Districts section from the County Charter.
“Yes,” Elbrecht replied.
She told him she did not want citizens to be confused again. “The voters would have to vote to undo what they did.”
“That’s a great point,” Maio said.