In spite of public protests, County Commission authorizes July 12 public hearing on proposed county Charter amendments involving citizen-initiated referenda

Speakers stress that proposed new amendments have been crafted to make it impossible for citizens to modify the Charter

This is the cover of the Sarasota County Charter. Image courtesy Clerk of Court and County Comptroller Karen Rushing

In spite of comments from six people who urged them not to proceed, the Sarasota County commissioners this week approved the July 12 scheduling of a public hearing on proposed amendments to the Sarasota County Charter that would impose more constraints on citizen-initiated referenda regarding the Charter.

On Oct. 14, 2020, the members of the county’s separately elected Charter Review Board voted unanimously to approve the amendments that will be the focus of that July 12 hearing. The County Commission is required to conduct a hearing on those proposals and then vote on placing them on an upcoming ballot. A memo to the commissioners, included in their June 7 agenda packet, said that the Office of the County Attorney had reviewed the Charter Review Board amendments “and prepared a ballot summary to comport with Section 101.161 [of the] Florida Statutes, and case law.”

Among the new provisions would be a requirement that a group working on a citizen-initiated Charter amendment would have to gather signatures of at least 10% of the registered voters in each of the five County Commission districts at the time of the last general election.

During the Oct. 14, 2020 Charter Review Board meeting, Donna Barcomb of Venice, then a member of that board, explained that that stipulation was designed to ensure that an amendment that might be targeted to an issue in one district would not negatively affect another district. She added, “[The language] was meant to [ensure that a proposed amendment would] be representative of the entire county and not just maybe one district.”

Further, Barcomb explained to members of the public that the initiative to craft the amendments began in January 2019. “It started because we felt there wasn’t any opportunity” for citizens to talk about various amendments proposed for a ballot. She noted that the November 2018 General Election ballot, in fact, had numerous proposed amendments.

“Not everyone was fully informed about the ins and outs of [them],” Barcomb continued. The Charter Review Board’s proposed changes, Barcomb said, were not, in her mind, “meant to be another hurdle for petitioners. [The process was] for edification purposes.”

These are the ballot questions for the two amendments the Charter Review Board has proposed. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Among those citizen-initiated referenda on Charter amendments on the November 2018 ballot were two that Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino had written. They were a response to the County Commission’s vote in May 2016 to vacate a 373-foot-long segment of North Beach Road on the barrier island. One of his amendments called for the county to make an effort to re-acquire that section of road, which has a direct view of the Gulf of Mexico. The second one called for the County Commission to refrain from vacating any road segment that had so much as a view of a body of water.

Both amendments passed. However, during Cosentino’s years of litigation with the county over the North Beach Road vacation, a 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge ruled that they conflicted with state law and therefore were invalid. The Florida Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the judge’s decision.

Among the other new proposed changes to the Charter is the necessity of the county’s reviewing a citizen-initiated amendment “for legal sufficiency” and for any fiscal impacts on the county. Further, the sponsor of a petition would be asked to appear during a Charter Review Board (CRB) meeting “between the time of submitting a Charter amendment petition form and June 1st of the year of the general election on the proposed Charter amendment,” unless a majority the Charter Review Board waived that requirement.

Although the Charter Review Board approved the amendments nearly 20 months ago, Section 7.1 of the Sarasota County Charter says that any proposed Charter changes “shall be submitted to the voters at a referendum election to [be] held concurrently with the next general election …”

The October 2020 vote was too late to get the proposals on the November 2020 ballot.

Public outcry

Vic Rohe addresses the commissioners on June 7. News Leader image

“These amendments are tantamount to doing away with the citizen petition method of amending the Charter,” Vic Rohe of Sarasota told the county commissioners during their regular meeting on June 7. “Why not just put that on the [November General Election] ballot?” he asked. “Be honest … These are crafted to be deceptive.”

Donna Cubit-Swoyer of Sarasota told the commissioners that she took a civics class when she was in high school. “I was looking forward to participating in a government of the people, by the people and for the people,” she continued. “It’s pretty frustrating to have to engage in this one-upmanship. It erodes our time and our energy and our trust in each other. What I really want,” Cubit-Swoyer added, “is a government that reflects the will and the needs of the constituents.”

Bill Van Allen, vice chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Sarasota County, urged the commissioners, “Send these amendments back to the Sarasota Charter Review Board to cure numerous and serious deficiencies, errors and oversights and postpone the July hearing until the Charter Review Board does so.”

Among the problems in the language, Van Allen pointed out, is the requirement that any citizen-initiated amendment “ ‘shall not conflict with the existing Charter’ …” He called that “ridiculous on its face. Any amendment must necessarily conflict with the existing Charter in order to amend it.”

This is part of the resolution that the Republican Liberty Caucus of Sarasota County presented to the commissioners on June 7. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Alexandra Coe, chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Sarasota County, urged the commissioners to read a resolution that Van Allen had provided to them from that organization.

She was elected to the Charter Review Board in November 2020, Coe added. She believed that voters placed her on that board, she continued, “to help them increase their access to government. “They elected me to help them understand the Charter and how the Charter can be used for them to have government of, for and by the people in Sarasota County. … These changes do exactly the opposite.”

Coe also called for the commissioners to send the amendments back to the Charter Review Board for revisions before any hearing is conducted on them.

Detert questions one aspect of the proposed changes

Authorization of the July hearing on the amendments was the first item on the commission’s June 7 Consent Agenda, which typically includes routine business matters that are not controversial.

Commissioner Nancy Detert. News Leader image

Following the public comments, when Chair Alan Maio asked for a vote on the Consent Agenda, Commissioner Nancy Detert asked that the Charter Review Board item be removed, as she had a question for staff of the Office of the County Attorney.

Addressing Chief Deputy County Attorney Karl Senkow, Detert pointed to one facet of the proposed amendments. It says, “A fiscal impact statement of no more than 75 words prepared by the County shall accompany any Charter amendment proposed by the petition. The County shall prepare the fiscal impact statement upon collection of validated signatures of 1% of registered voters. The fiscal impact statement shall be completed within 30 days following submission of the notice of validated signatures to the County. The Petition Form shall be amended to include the fiscal impact statement once it is provided to the petition sponsor.”

Assistant County Attorney Sarah Blackwell answers questions on June 7. News Leader image

That fiscal impact statement would not actually go on the ballot with the proposed amendment, would it? Detert asked Senkow. “I thought that was illegal, to have the cost,” she added, though she noted that she always has found that to be a problem for a publicly initiated amendment.

Senkow deferred to Assistant County Attorney Sarah Blackwell, who is the liaison from the Office of the County Attorney to the Charter Review Board.

The fiscal impact statement would go on the ballot, Blackwell told Detert. It would be placed under the ballot question.

“I thought that was illegal,” Detert reiterated her earlier comment.

“We can examine that and make sure we have a clear determination of that before the public hearing,” Senkow responded.

“I’d like to see that in writing,” Detert told him.

Senkow then emphasized the fact that the amendments were proposed by the Charter Review Board, which is a separately elected body that is not under the auspices of the County Commission, unlike the latter board’s advisory councils.

Detert affirmed that point, as well. “This is not our idea,” she said of the proposed amendments. “I just want to make sure it’s a legal idea,” she said again, referring to the fiscal impact statement.

Then Detert made a motion to authorize the July 12 public hearing at the downtown Sarasota County Administration Center, and Commissioner Michael Moran seconded the motion. It passed unanimously.

A document included in the agenda packet says the hearing will be conducted during the morning, noting that the commission meetings begin at 9 a.m.