Commissioners Moran, Maio and Ziegler join Detert in voicing opposition to Charter amendment approved by voters in 2018
In a fashion akin to her raising the redistricting issue in 2019, Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert this week called for a county survey of the public to determine just what people do and do not understand about the Single-Member Districts County Charter amendment that governs commission elections, as of this year.
She brought up the topic during her report to her colleagues as part of the commission’s regular meeting on Nov. 17.
As a result, the commissioners agreed to discuss the issue in-depth during their December retreat, an annual event when they settle on initiatives they plan to pursue in the coming year. The retreat this year is set for Friday, Dec. 11. A second date has been marked on the commissioners’ calendar — Dec. 18 — in case they cannot complete their discussions on Dec. 11.
Detert made it clear on Nov. 17 that she did not want to discuss the issue of Single-Member Districts during a regular board session. “Then our meetings get hijacked by special interest groups and we don’t hear from folks in general. You’re not getting a true sampling of a cross section of the people who live here.”
Detert initiated the discussion by expressing disappointment that the annual county Citizen Opinion Survey had been “done already,” as a couple of her colleagues had alluded to that morning. (See the related article in this issue.) “I would like to ask our staff to do a survey based on Single-Member Districts,” Detert continued. “This is not to get political,” she maintained. “It’s just process.”
What prompted her request, Detert indicated, was the fact that she had had “a lot of inquiries from people,” asking why her name was not on their Nov. 3 General Election ballots.
Two of the commission’s districts had no races this year because of the Single-Member Districts election system that voters approved in November 2018, Detert pointed out. “The voters voted for that [County Charter amendment], apparently unbeknownst to them, in the last election,” she added.
With Single-Member Districts in place, a voter may cast a ballot only for a candidate who resides in the same district as the voter. The three County Commission seats up for election this year were those for Districts 1, 3 and 5. Detert won re-election to District 3; Chair Michael Moran retained his District 1 seat; and Ron Cutsinger of Englewood won the District 5 seat that Commissioner Charles Hines had to relinquish because of term limits.
In the past, Detert continued on Nov. 17, all the commissioners were elected countywide. Therefore, every Sarasota County voter was able to cast ballots for them, regardless of where the voter lived.
Her goal with the survey, Detert explained, is “just to get a sampling of how [voters] feel about [Single-Member Districts in the aftermath of the Nov. 3 election]. Do they feel they were deprived of their right to vote,” or do they believe Single-Member Districts “was a great idea?”
If that information were available, Detert continued, the county’s Charter Review Board “or anybody else” could act on it.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler pointed out that, with the passage of the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment, “What’s happened here [is that it] basically, immediately removed 80% of the responsibility [of the commissioners to act on behalf of all county residents], and it also removed 80% of the accountability [of county commissioners to constituents]. … The four of us were elected countywide,” Ziegler added, referring to all the commissioners except Cutsinger.
New board members could “just advocate for … their districts,” he continued, adding, “We saw that in the campaigns” this year for the commission seats.
“There’s so many people who don’t understand Single-Member Districts,” Ziegler stressed. “We should let the public know what really goes on with ’em.”
“I think, as time goes on,” Detert said, [Single-Member Districts is] just bad government, because you become territorial.”
“The reason I was against this,” Ziegler added, is because “it does transition power away from the people.”
Ziegler also suggested that perhaps each commissioner should have a staff member assigned to help him or her with outreach to the residents of the commissioner’s district. Additionally, he said, the board members should start asking anyone who appears during the Open to the Public sessions during the meetings to state the district in which the person lives.
Kindra Muntz, president of the nonprofit organization that advocated for the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment — Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE) — provided comments to The Sarasota News Leader in response to the publication’s request, following the Nov. 17 discussion.
“One big winner in the 2020 elections was single member districts for electing county commissioners,” she wrote, noting that “60% of voters of all political parties voted for this in 2018 to allow good candidates in each district to compete to represent their district, to reduce the cost of running by 80%, and to be able to hold their elected officials accountable.”
Muntz also pointed out, “Strong candidates of both major political parties emerged because of single member districts. People in each district elevated their concerns and were heard. More voters voted than ever before. Although challengers to the establishment candidates did not win,” she acknowledged, “they opened new horizons for future candidates to bring fresh hope for residents in Sarasota County that in coming years, the voices of the people may be heard, and decisions may be made that respect them as much as the developer donors who now hold sway over current commissioners.”
Then Muntz cautioned, “Beware of a coming survey from these commissioners worded to persuade you to return to at-large voting, in which voters vote for all commissioners across the county. That will ensure that county commission elections will be so expensive that only those backed by corporate overlords can run.”
More frustrations vented
Both Commissioner Alan Maio and Chair Michael Moran reported questions from voters similar to those asked of Detert, as the Nov. 17 discussion continued.
Prior to the board’s redrawing of commission district lines in 2019, Maio said, the southern border of his district — District 4 — was Blackburn Point Road. Following the approval of the new district boundaries on Nov. 19, 2019, he continued, his district extended south of that road, which used to be part of District 5.
“This is not me embellishing or exaggerating,” Maio continued: “I have talked about this — initiated by the person … no less than 60 or 65 times. They are confounded [that they were unable to vote for a commissioner on Nov. 3].”
Supporters of the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment, Maio added, “may feel pretty self-satisfied to have one commissioner representing them.” However, he stressed, it takes three board members to approve any action. “We don’t get control of one-fifth of the county coffers. … I think you’re going to hear the people more and more and more about this subject. I just truly think they were not absolutely clear what they were voting for [in November 2018].”
Chair Moran then pointed out that when he and volunteers with his campaign were working outside voting places, numerous supporters came up to them after voting to ask why Moran was not on their ballots. When he explained Single-Member Districts to them, Moran continued, “They were very vocal that they felt it was a horrible situation for governance.
They even got heightened in irritation when they found out it was a special interest, political activist group that brought it about in the first place.”
Moran was referring to Muntz’s organization, SAFE.
Moran added that, since the 2020 election was over, and he and Detert are serving their last terms on the board, he hoped the discussion that day did not appear to be “self-serving.”
“We don’t have a dog in the race anymore,” Detert concurred with him on that point.
Then Moran said that representatives of SAFE — which he never identified by name — had contended that their primary reason for pursuing the Charter amendment was to lower the expense of commission races. That proved false, Moran said, referring to “wealthy individuals flat out trying to buy a seat.”
Moran’s Democratic opponent in the General Election was retired educator Mark Pienkos, who lives in the same community as Moran, The Meadows. Campaign finance documents filed with the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office show that Pienkos ended up loaning $21,500 to his campaign.
Moran reprised his complaint later during the discussion, referring to a “candidate just simply self-funding [because the candidate] has an ax to grind on a very specific topic.”
Pienkos allied himself with members of the Miakka Community Club, who had sought an amendment to the county’s Comprehensive Plan to reduce the residential density that would be allowed on 6,000 acres near the intersection of Fruitville Road and Verna Road. That property is near the club members’ homes in the easternmost portion of the county. “Keep the Country Country” was the rallying cry for advocates of the Comprehensive Plan amendment.
Moran added on Nov. 17 that candidates who run on specific issues “don’t care about the county as a whole … and I’m using those words aggressively for a reason. … I think Single-Member Districts might fan that fire.”
“I just felt I’d bring [the issue] up now and take your temperature on it and push for the idea of a survey and give some direction to staff,” Detert said, adding that staff members could offer a report to the board during the December retreat.