Members of public see plan as means of trying to dilute effects of Single-Member Districts county Charter amendment
Near the end of the Jan. 12 Sarasota County Legislative Delegation meeting, Rep. James Buchanan, R-Osprey, chair of the group, announced that he had new business to discuss: the potential of adding two at-large members to the Sarasota County Commission, which has five district seats.
“It’s been a conversation occurring in parts of our community over the holiday,” Buchanan explained, adding that it had been brought to his attention. The proposal would be placed on the 2024 General Election ballot, he indicated, if it won approval in the 2023 legislative session, which will begin in early March.
This would not entail “changing any of the dynamics that exist currently,” Buchanan pointed out.
Then Buchanan recognized Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, for further comments on the issue.
“My intent is to bring that up at the next Delegation meeting,” Gruters said, though he did not offer a date for that subsequent session of the group, which comprises the four legislative members representing parts of Sarasota County.
In response to a Sarasota News Leader inquiry, Lindsay Cosby, legislative aide to Buchanan, wrote in a Jan. 18 email that the date of the next Delegation meeting had not been set, “but it will be some time before the next Session.”
Gruters explained that the aftermath of Hurricane Ian “and other issues that come up,” have shown that, “sometimes, one district commissioner is not enough. I think the two additional at-large members can assist anywhere [in the county].”
Gruters emphasized, “These commissioners are accountable to the people that vote [for] ’em; nobody else. I think you could stop, maybe, some of the games.”
He did not elaborate on the latter statement.
A battle against the Single-Member Districts voting system
During the 2018 General Election, nearly 60% of the county citizens who cast ballots on the issue approved a change in the method of choosing the Sarasota County commissioners. Instead of countywide elections, as had been the norm for all but about two years that the County Commission has been in existence, the board members would be elected by voters in each district. The Single-Member Districts system no longer would allow persons outside an individual district to cast ballots for candidates who were vying to represent that district.
In March 2022, the Sarasota County Charter Review Board tried to overturn the system, after its members agreed with the county commissioners, who have argued since November 2018 that many of the people who approved Single-Member Districts did not know what they were supporting.
However, during that March 8 special election, 57.22% of the 99,391 citizens who cast ballots on the issue that day kept the Single-Member Districts voting method in place.
Leaders of the Sarasota County Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE), which worked to place the measure on the 2018 ballot, had pointed out that countywide elections had grown so expensive that many commission races drew few candidates, including Democrats. The board members have all been registered Republicans for more than 50 years. Typically, in recent years, those candidates supported by developers had ended up with hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from firms that routinely seek County Commission approval for new residential communities.
In 2020, when the first commission elections were conducted after the Single-Member Districts system went into effect — except for two years in the early 1990s when the voting method also was part of the Sarasota County Charter — Democratic candidates filed for the three seats on the ballot. Kindra Muntz, president of SAFE, pointed to the fact that good, credible candidates were willing to vie for the seats since they no longer had to face the prospect of winning support countywide.
Nonetheless, incumbents Michael Moran in District 1 and Nancy Detert in District 3 won re-election. Newcomer Ron Cutsinger of Englewood won the District 5 seat.
In response to a News Leader request for comments on Buchanan’s and Gruters’ proposal, Muntz wrote in a Jan. 18 email, “Sarasota County voters of all political parties voted resoundingly twice to keep single-member districts for electing County Commissioners. That’s the only way responsible candidates can hope to curb the frantic growth in Sarasota County rubber stamped by developer- and Tallahassee- backed Commissioners. More candidates can compete to serve the county as they represent their district — both helping their fellow Commissioners in a time of crisis like Hurricane Ian, and regularly responding to their voters’ concerns rather than dismissing them as Commissioners do now.”
She added, “Three Republican candidates have already filed to run for County Commission in District 1 in 2024. (See the related article in this issue.) What would give voters more voice in elections? Not by adding two At-Large commissioners bankrolled by developers. But by electing candidates using Ranked Choice Voting, which would guarantee the winner has the most popular support. See https://www.rankmyvoteflorida.org/. It’s time to press our legislators to get Ranked Choice Voting restored in Florida,” Muntz concluded her statement.
A process and opponents to it
After Gruters finished his remarks during the Jan. 12 Delegation meeting, Rep. Buchanan pointed out, “We are a Charter county here in Sarasota.” The Charter, he noted, lays out the ways it can be amended.
Section VII of the county Charter says that changes “may be proposed by (i) a petition, signed by at least ten percent (10%) of the number of registered voters in Sarasota County; (ii) a special law enacted by the legislature; (iii) an ordinance; or (iv) a recommendation by the Charter Review Board.” Then, the Charter points out, any proposed changes “shall be submitted to the voters at a referendum election to [be] held concurrently with the next general election …”
Buchanan added on Jan. 12, “There are a number of local opportunities for this conversation [about adding two at-large members] to begin as well and for our community to begin to talk about and think about whether this would make some sense.”
Late last week, after reporter Barbara Richardson posted a link to her North Port Sun article about the Delegation discussion on the Facebook group page Citizens for Sarasota County, several members of that group responded negatively to the proposal.
Tom Matrullo, a Sarasota resident who has been actively engaged in a number of county issues, wrote, “It’s quite remarkable that Repubs like Gruters and Buchanan, supporters of DeSantisian Freedumb for ‘The Free State of Florida’ (a coded expression if I ever saw one) think it’s in the people’s best interest to watch them expand our local board, with our tax dollars, without actually having the voice of a single citizen to cite in support of the idea. The entire state is one giant slimy mechanism achieving the goals of business, alt-rightists, and reactionaries, and the only thing necessary is to lie to our faces with equanimity.”
Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino, a Democrat who waged a battle with the County Commission over the 2016 board’s approval of the vacation of a 373-foot-long section of North Beach Road — and who ran unsuccessfully for the District 2 commission seat in 2022 — added, “To be sure they’re all (legislators, commissioners, planning commission, charter review board, judges) puppets of the developers.”
Yet a third person, past Venice Mayor E.W. Martin wrote, “Gruters, like other Repub. politicians on Commission, does not want to accept [voters’] clear intentions, affirmed by votes more than once. He seeks to add two County Commission Members, elected at large, despite the [taxpayers’] clear preference for district representation.
“What is clear is that Gruters and Commissioners want to use money to elect subservient commissioners, responsible to money interests, not local voters and their issues,” Matin continued.
“We need to clear this local swamp!” he concluded his post.
A fourth person, former Assistant County Attorney Susan Schoettle, who has her own law practice, wrote, “I have not had a chance to research this new proposal … but I think this deserves legal review.”
Only one person who had commented on the article as of Jan. 16, Vivian Drawneek, a long-time county employee who retired last year, offered a positive comment: “Kind of makes sense to me with the county growing so much and each [of the] 5 [districts] having such diverse issues. Having smaller districts can help dilute issues on a broader scale.”
Drawneek added, “I never liked the idea of voters solely voting within their own district. Causes too much divisiveness and therefore, power plays.”
Before her retirement from county employment, Drawneek routinely handled developers’ applications for projects in the eastern part of the county that would be constructed under the guidelines of the county’s 2050 Plan, which was implemented about 20 years ago to govern growth east of Interstate 75.