County staff to prepare succinct educational card explaining proposed Sarasota County Charter amendments on Nov. 6 ballot

Commissioners ask staff to create the educational material to help citizens understand the purpose of the measures

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo. File photo

Because of the number of proposed amendments to the Sarasota County Charter that will be on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot, the County Commission this week asked that staff prepare a succinct explanation of them for educational purposes.

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo raised the issue during the board’s regular meeting on Sept. 11. “Given the panoply of additional Charter amendments,” he said, “do we officially have any kind of narrative explaining [them]?” he asked staff.

He had seen a county fact sheet regarding the Nov. 6 referendum on extension of The Legacy Trail to Payne Park in downtown Sarasota, Caragiulo pointed out, but nothing about the other proposals.

On March 14, the commissioners unanimously agreed to seek voter approval for the board to issue $65 million in bonds in two phases to cover the purchase of the final segment of railroad right of way it needs to extend The Legacy Trail from Ashton Road to Fruitville Road. The funds also would pay for the necessary improvements to transform that right of way into a bicycle/pedestrian trail, as well as Legacy Trail links to North Port and Venice.

“That’s an excellent point,” Chair Nancy Detert responded to Caragiulo’s comment. She suggested a one-page fact sheet.

“A one-pager for [all the county issues] would be nice,” Caragiulo replied and then added that a document “business card size” would be even better.

“A palm card [that] says, ‘Vote Yes on all our stuff and No on everything else,” Detert said.

She was referring to the series of proposed amendments to the Charter that the commissioners approved for the Nov. 6 ballot. Those would change requirements for citizen-initiated petition drives to place proposed Charter amendments before the voters. Among the commission-initiated changes would be doubling the number of registered voters’ signatures from 5% to 10% to get an amendment on the ballot; necessitating that all petitions for a Charter amendment be turned into the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office at one time between Jan. 1 and April 1 of the year in which the organizers of the campaign wish to have the amendment appear on the ballot; and requiring that all citizen-proposed Charter amendments be considered during a General Election.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis. Rachel Hackney photo

“Maybe an education piece?” County Administrator Jonathan Lewis asked, seeking clarification about the Sept. 6 board request.

“Right,” Detert told him, so citizens would be informed about the issues.

Then, addressing Lewis, Caragiulo asked, “What’s the skeptical look for, Jonathan? You look concerned.”

In response, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh explained that legally, county staff can devote time and effort only to educating voters about such issues; “you cannot expressly advocate [for any of them],” he told the commissioners. “This piece would be just an educational piece.”
However, DeMarsh added, “Individually, as commissioners … you have opinions, and you’re allowed to express your opinions, if you choose.”

DeMarsh continued, “The limitation is on the expenditure of public resources. It’s not a limitation on commissioners taking a position.”

Detert replied that they were not talking about public service announcements or advertising.

“It would be prepared as essentially a factual piece,” DeMarsh said of the work staff could handle in response to the board request.

Then DeMarsh sought clarification that the commissioners wanted the fact sheet or card to include information about the referendum for The Legacy Trail North Extension; the commission-initiated Charter amendments; the proposed Charter amendments related to the May 2016 vacation of North Beach Road on Siesta Key; and the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections’ proposed amendment on single-member commission districts. “All of those appear with a section of the ballot, in that order,” DeMarsh added. “I’m assuming you want the piece to just touch on each one of them.”

No board member offered a different take on that.

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. File photo

“If we could have that within the next couple of days,” Detert began. Then, apparently responding to an expression on Lewis’ face, she continued, “I’m serious. It shouldn’t be that difficult.”

Commissioner Charles Hines noted that a state election law requires supervisors of elections offices to send out vote-by-mail ballots by Saturday, Sept. 22, to military personnel and overseas voters who will not be in the county the day of the November General Election.

“Be happy to do that, working with the Office of the County Attorney,” Lewis told the commissioners, referring to Detert’s request for speed in preparation of the educational material.

However, Lewis did ask that the board members vote on the direction to staff.

“So moved,” Caragiulo said.

“Second,” Commissioner Alan Maio added.

After the unanimous vote, Detert told Lewis, “And so you’re instructed.”