County resident files complaints with Florida Elections Commission over PAC’s alleged failure to meet filing deadline for financial details related to March 8 Single-Member Districts and School Board referenda

Chair of PAC says reports not due until March 10 at Florida Division of Elections

This is a Feb. 9 mailer distributed by the Sun Coast Alliance PAC. Image courtesy R.N. Collins

A Sarasota County resident has filed two complaints with the Florida Elections Commission, contending that the chair of a political action committee (PAC) that sent out mailers regarding Sarasota County’s March 8 Single-Member Districts referendum, and the PAC itself, violated a section of state law.

R.N. Collins wrote in the complaints, which were filed on Feb. 24, that Sun Coast Alliance and its chair, William “Stafford” Jones of Tallahassee, have spent money on advertising in advance of that special election and failed to file the necessary financial reports according to a deadline set by the Florida Statutes.

An accounting of all the contributions that the PAC received, as well as “all expenditures” it made, or those made on its behalf, should have been submitted to the state on the 18th day before the election, Collins wrote. That date was Feb. 18, Collins added.

Section 106.07(1)(d)2 of the Florida Statutes says, “When an election is called for an issue to appear on the ballot at a time when no candidates are scheduled to appear on the ballot, all political committees making contributions or expenditures in support of or in opposition to such issue shall file reports on the 18th and 4th days before such election.”

As Collins noted in his complaints, the March 8 Special Election has no candidates on the ballot.

Collins added that, in searching the Florida Division of Elections website and the website of Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner, he was unable to find the relevant documentation from Sun Coast Alliance.

During its own checks of the PAC’s page on the Division of Elections website and Turner’s website, The Sarasota News Leader also failed to find any reports of applicable contributions and expenditures.

In response to a question that the News Leader posed about the filings to Stafford Jones, chair of Sun Coast Alliance, Jones wrote in a March 1 email, “The reporting period for February just ended yesterday. Reports for February are due by March 10th.”

Further, Jones told the News Leader that since Sun Coast Alliance “does work in multiple jurisdictions that would require it to file in multiple jurisdictions, then it is to just file with the Florida Division of [E]lections and report there.”

He added, “Sun Coast Alliance is registered and files where it is required to, by Florida Statute.” He cited Section 106.03 of the Statutes.

The Sun Coast Alliance mailers and other advertising urged voters to mark “Yes” on both the March 8 ballot question regarding Single-Member Districts and the question about whether to extend a special 1-mill tax for the Sarasota County School District for four more years.

Although Sun Coast Alliance lists the address of a Tallahassee law firm on its formal registration documents with the state, the address printed on mailers sent to Sarasota County voters was a post office box at the UPS Store on Bee Ridge Road in Sarasota.

Continuing debate over Single-Member Districts

As approved by the County Commissioners in a unanimous vote, the Single-Member Districts ballot question for March 8 says, “Shall each member of the Board of County Commissioners be elected county-wide, thereby allowing voters to vote for all five County Commissioners as each office comes up for election, rather than voters only being able to elect a single County Commissioner from the district in which the voter resides as presently exists in Article II, Section 2.1A of the Sarasota County Charter?”

This is the section of the Sarasota County Charter amended after the November 2018 election. It includes the language establishing Single-Member District voting. Image courtesy Sarasota County

That Single-Member Districts system won nearly 60% of voter support during the November 2018 General Election. The Charter amendment requires that only citizens who live in the same district as candidates for a County Commission seat can vote for those candidates. Previously — except for a two-year period during the early 1990s — all commissioners were elected countywide.

Since the Charter amendment won its place in the Sarasota County Charter more than three years ago, the county commissioners — all of whom are Republicans — have argued that the voting system should be overturned. They say it has taken away commissioner accountability.

Commissioner Michael Moran has called Single-Member Districts a Democratic ploy, while Commissioner Alan Maio said repeatedly, for months, that people who voted for the Charter amendment did not understand it.

Both Moran and Maio talked at length, during more than one commission meeting, about the distress of constituents who could not participate in all three of the board races that were on the November 2020 General Election ballot.

Kindra Muntz addresses the Sarasota County Charter Review Board in May 2021. File image

Conversely, Kindra Muntz, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE) — the nonprofit organization that won sufficient voter support to put the Charter amendment on the November 2018 ballot — has pointed out that countywide races are prohibitively expensive. With Single-Member Districts in effect for the 2020 election, she praised the fact that credible, qualified candidates were able to challenge incumbents Nancy Detert and Moran and vie for the District 5 seat ultimately won by Commissioner Ron Cutsinger of Englewood.

Moran, Detert and Cutsinger took in bundles of contributions from developers, as the News Leader documented in 2020.

Through July 31, 2020, thanks to developer support, Cutsinger — who was seeking to succeed term-limited Commissioner Charles Hines — raised $68,310.60, compared to the $31,480.40 taken in by his Republican Primary challenger, Christopher Hanks.

Muntz has been among those urging citizens to vote “No” on the Single-Member Districts ballot question on the March 8 election. She has sent out numerous email blasts over recent weeks. One on Feb. 21 carried the subject line, “CRUNCH time for Single Member Districts!”

In it, Muntz wrote, with emphasis, “Everyone, please STAY FOCUSED and VOTE NO on countywide voting on the March 8 ballot!

“Single member districts for electing County Commissioners are the only way PRINCIPLED Republicans, Independents, Democrats or NPAs can ever be elected to serve on the Sarasota County Commission, and be truly accountable to their constituents as they serve for the good of the county.”
Muntz also has been seeking donations to support SAFE’s efforts to keep Single-Member Districts in place. That Feb. 21 email blast included a plea for contributions: “DONATE HERE:

More details of Collins’ complaints

In his complaints to the Elections Commission, Sarasota resident Collins pointed out the following:

  • “a. On or about February 1, 2022, Sun Coast Alliance distributed paid political advertising that supports a yes vote [on the March 8 Single-Member Districts referendum].
  • “b. On or about February 9, 2022, Sun Coast Alliance distributed paid political advertising that supports a yes vote.
  • “c. On or about February 10, 2022, Sun Coast Alliance distributed paid political advertising that supports a yes vote.
  • “d. On February 14, 2022, Sun Coast Alliance broadcast via television paid political advertising that supports a yes vote.
  • “e. On or about February 19, 2022, Sun Coast Alliance distributed paid political advertising that supports a yes vote.
  • “f. On or about February 23, 2022, Sun Coast Alliance distributed paid political advertising that supports a yes vote.”

Further, Collins continued, Sun Coast Alliance distributed “paid political advertising” in support of the first question on the March 8 Special Election ballot. That asks voters whether the Sarasota County School Board can implement a 1-mill tax for four more years, with the revenue devoted to a number of programs that the Sarasota County School District otherwise could not afford. The special tax first won voter support in 2002.

This is a copy of the Feb. 10 mailer from Sun Coast Alliance. Image courtesy R.N. Collins

Again, Collins pointed out, the PAC had failed to file the necessary financial information by Feb. 18, the deadline he understood the Florida Statutes to require.

Under the provisions of state law, Collins had to submit separate complaints about Stafford Jones’ alleged failure to file the necessary reports and the PAC’s alleged violation, as well, of the reporting deadline cited in the Florida Statutes.