Majority of City Commission shoots down latest attempt to change city election cycle

Commissioner Brody cites statistics to show voter participation would improve with an August primary and November runoff

A graphic shows the results of the May runoff for the two at-large City Commission seats. More than 37,000 people were registered to vote at that time. Image courtesy Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office

Only Sarasota City Commissioner Hagen Brody — who made the motion — and Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie offered support this week to a new effort to move the city election cycle from the spring to November, with a primary in August.

Brody brought up the issue during the board’s regular meeting on Oct. 16, citing statistics about the traditionally small percentage of city voter participation in March and during May runoffs.

“We do have a very low voter turnout during the off-cycle elections,” Brody told his colleagues. By holding a primary to August and scheduling runoffs in November, he continued, “we could instantly have greater voter participation in the city elections.”

Adding that he has heard “all the cons” regarding such a change, “I don’t think that they outweigh the benefit that we and the city would receive. … November is when people expect to be voting.”

When Freeland Eddie first asked for any other comments on the issue, silence ensued. Then Brody asked, “Does anybody have an opinion on that?”

Noting that the board members discussed the potential change about 18 months ago, Vice Mayor Liz Alpert told him that in spite of that, no good options emerged.

“I could not in good conscience put a referendum on the ballot that I could not support,” she continued. “I don’t know that my opinion has changed.”

One of the options the board discussed early in 2016 would have eliminated the potential for a runoff, Freeland Eddie pointed out, and that would have reduced the number of qualified candidates competing for commission seats.

“I am supportive of anything that improves voter turnout,” Freeland Eddie added, but the commissioners saw no substantive data to bolster the contention that the move to the November general election cycle would achieve that effect.

However, she indicated willingness to let the city’s registered voters decide on an August primary date with a November runoff.

Commissioner Liz Alpert. File photo

“In the spring, there’s nothing to stop anyone from voting,” Alpert said. “There’s nothing that says you can’t come out and vote. So it’s not an issue of voter suppression.”

On the other hand, Alpert pointed out, many people are out of town in August, so if they wanted to participate in the primary, they would have to request vote-by-mail ballots.

Alpert further reminded her colleagues that a Charter Review Commission appointed by an earlier City Commission considered a proposal for moving the elections, too, and recommended against it.

“This has never been before the voters to decide,” Brody countered, “and this is a question for them.” The city would save about $120,000, he added, by holding its election on the cycle the state uses, in even-numbered years.

(In response to a question from The Sarasota News Leader, Deputy City Auditor and Clerk Karen McGowan reported in an Oct. 17 telephone interview that the city spent $88,692.85 on the at-large election this year, when Brody and Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch were elected. That was the total, she added, “unless there’s some hidden bills out there we don’t know about.”)

In the November 2016 General Election, Brody continued on Oct. 16, 69% of city voters turned out.

When he and Ahearn-Koch were elected in May, Brody said, the turnout was 22.84% of the 37,365 registered voters at that time.

(Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner told the News Leader in an Oct. 17 telephone interview that the total number of registered voters in the city for the May election was 37,697. The city’s population in 2016 was 55,118, City Auditor and Clerk Pam Nadalini reported in an email exchange with Brody last week.)

Commissioner Hagen Brody. News Leader photo

Brody won 6,371 votes in May, while Ahearn-Koch had 5,080. A total of 14,568 ballots were cast, according to the Supervisor of Elections Office website. Business owner Martin Hyde was the third candidate in the May runoff, garnering 3,117 votes.

Brody also pointed out on Oct. 16 that statistics showed that only 7.97% of African-American voters went to the polls for that at-large election, along with 7.2% of Latino voters, 5.6% of those age 29 and under and 8.25% of those age 39 and under.

Conversely, in November 2016, he said, 61% of African-American voters in the city went to the polls, joined by 66% of Latino voters and 46% of younger voters.

Moving the election would give those groups “three times more of a voice,” he told his colleagues.

“I don’t want to discuss this at length,” Ahearn-Koch responded, citing the lack of detailed information provided to the board members about the item in advance of the meeting. Brody had asked for the discussion to be placed on the Oct. 16 agenda.

No clamoring for a change

Ahearn-Koch pointed out that past efforts to obtain enough voter signatures on petitions to get a referendum on the ballot to change the city election cycle had failed. “As soon as somebody can garner enough supporters,” she said, the question could go before voters.

“I don’t see where it’s in our best interest, while we have limited staff time and funds, that we direct staff to spend even 1 minute on this,” she added.

“I think there is a little bit of a self-preservation apprehension involved,” Brody replied. However, he concurred that it would be difficult to get the issue on a ballot through a petition drive.

Alpert said Ahearn-Koch had made a good point, though: “If people were clamoring for this,” enough of them would sign petitions.

“To keep bringing this issue up every 18 months,” Alpert added, “I just don’t understand it.”

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch. File photo

Then Freeland Eddie asked City Attorney Robert Fournier about the process that would be required if the board wanted to hold a referendum on the issue.

An ordinance adopted by the City Commission would have to specify the date of the referendum, Fournier replied, and the referendum could be held no sooner than 90 days after the ordinance won approval. It also could be conducted no later than the next general election, he said.

Furthermore, the commissioners would have to “provide for an effective date” for when the change in cycle would take place, Fournier continued. The board members also would need to decide how to make the transition for those already holding seats, he said. For example, would those commissioners serve an extra 18 months, or would a new commissioner elected during the first new cycle hold a seat for just 18 months? The latter, he noted, is “probably the least attractive option.”

After Commissioner Willie Shaw called for an end to the discussion, Brody made a motion to direct Fournier to bring back a draft of language that would switch the city election cycle from March and May voting to August and November voting. Freeland Eddie seconded it.

Alpert, Ahearn-Koch and Shaw all voted against it.