County Commission to hold Dec. 7 public hearing on proposed ordinance to amend County Charter
On Oct. 20, the seven elected members of the Sarasota County Charter Review Board who were present voted unanimously to postpone indefinitely any discussion on repealing the Single-Member Districts voting system that close to 60% of voters approved during the November 2018 General Election.
On Nov. 15, the Sarasota County commissioners voted unanimously to direct County Attorney Frederick J. “Rick” Elbrecht and his staff to prepare an ordinance that would place the issue once again before the voters.
Then, on Nov. 16, the commissioners voted unanimously, again, to authorize county staff to advertise a public hearing on the proposed ordinance on Dec. 7. On that date, they all indicated, they will vote to conduct a new referendum, with the hope that voters will remove the Single-Member Districts system from the Sarasota County Charter.
Assuming no change in their views prior to Dec. 7, the referendum will be held on March 8, 2022, Elbrecht said. It will be on the ballot with a special election calling for continuation of a Sarasota County School Board tax that pays for a wide variety of programs that are not covered by state funding.
All of the commissioners have made it clear that they are adamantly opposed to Single-Member Districts. That Charter amendment allows a voter to cast a ballot just for commission candidates who live within the same district as the voters. The system went into effect for the November 2020 General Election. At that time, the County Commission seats for Districts 1, 3 and 5 were up for election.
During the Nov. 15 discussion, Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who represents District 2, was the one who raised the question about the timing of the referendum. Therefore, Commissioner Michael Moran, who had made the motion calling for the draft of the ordinance, modified it to direct Elbrecht to check with Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner about the scheduling.
On Nov. 16, Elbrecht explained that County Administrator Jonathan Lewis had spoken with Turner, who had assured Lewis that if the board approved the ballot language on Dec. 7, that would be sufficient time for the Supervisor of Elections Office staff to ensure the measure would be on the March 8, 2022 ballot.
Additionally, on Nov. 16, both Ziegler and Commissioner Nancy Detert suggested modifications to the ballot question that the Office of the County Attorney staff had proposed. They emphasized the need to make certain that voters understand what will be at stake.
Elbrecht responded that he felt it would be more appropriate for them to address modified ballot language during the Dec. 7 public hearing. Referring to the revisions that Ziegler and Detert suggested, he added, “I think it might be difficult right now to exactly wordsmith all that …”
During a May Charter Review Board meeting, members of the public criticized Chair Alan Maio for having said that voters were confused by the November 2018 ballot language regarding Single-Member Districts.
On Nov. 16, Maio also stressed the need for the 2022 ballot question to “make it clear that what [voters are] being asked is [to] ‘Take Back Your Lost Four Votes,’” a mantra that he cited several times during the Nov. 15 discussion.
As he has numerous times in the past, Ziegler said on Nov. 15 that the Single-Member Districts system “took away 80% of [citizens’] ability to vote for representation and to vote for accountability on the County Commission, instantly.”
During the Nov. 16 discussion, Detert told her colleagues, “I’m getting tired of trying to save people from themselves.”
At her request, the county’s Citizen Opinion Survey this year included a question about Single-Member Districts, and a plurality of respondents supported the measure. However, she noted on Nov. 16, “The survey didn’t reach a whole lot of people, so that didn’t tell us a whole lot.”
Members of the University of South Florida team that handled the survey told the board members in late September that 1,250 people participated in the process. The 2020 Census shows that the county has close to 434,000 residents.
On Nov. 15, Ziegler pointed out that, during private discussions he has had with supporters of Single-Member Districts, they have acknowledged that the goal of the amendment was to elect Democrats to the board. “Democrats can’t win countywide,” Ziegler added.
By count of The Sarasota News Leader, Commissioner Moran repeated the phrase “sly Democrats” four times on Nov. 15 in describing the advocates of Single-Member Districts.
During the redistricting hearing that afternoon, speaker Adrien Lucas of Sarasota referred to Moran’s use of the phrase during an Oct. 26 board discussion of Single-Member Districts. “Poor language use sometimes encourages dangerous behavior by humans,” Lucas pointed out. “Commissioners, please tone down your rhetoric. When some of your constituents have a difference of opinion from yours, we really aren’t the enemy. We’re Americans also.”
Additionally, at one point during the Nov. 15 board discussion, Commissioner Detert noted that when she debated “the main proponent of Single-Member Districts,” the woman “admitted that the whole purpose [of the Charter amendment] was to elect a Democrat” to the County Commission.
All of the commissioners have been Republicans for more than 50 years, members of the public have noted.
Kindra Muntz is president of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE), which worked to get the voting system referendum on the ballot and then advocated for its passage.
Arriving at the referendum plans
Chair Maio launched the Nov. 15 discussion by reading the letter that Charter Review Board Chair Joe Justice formally had sent him about that board’s Oct. 20 vote. Maio then asked for his colleagues’ thoughts.
After noting that the commissioners asked for the Single-Member Districts question to be placed on the 2021 Citizen Opinion Survey, Detert added, “I’m done. I am not going to suffer any more slings and arrows on behalf of people who voluntarily gave up their right to vote. As far as I’m concerned, it was the Charter Review Board’s responsibility to deal with [the issue]. They chose not to. I don’t think we should deal with it, either.”
Commissioner Moran then talked about the need for a “short walk down ‘Memory Lane’ on this. … Before Single-Member Districts, every person in this county could vote for every commissioner that was up at every election.”
Moran added, “A small group of sly Democrats brought [this] about, and you got to ask the question of simply, ‘Why?’ What were they trying to fix?”
National surveys show that Sarasota County is the No. 1 community to live in in the United States, Moran continued. The county’s financial ratings remain strong, he added, referencing the latest announcement involving county utility bonds. (See the related article in this issue.)
“We have Tourist Development Tax [revenues] that are at record numbers,” Moran said, referring to the funds produced by the county’s 5% tax on rentals of accommodations for six months or less time.
He also talked about the high marks for local government operations, as shown on the county’s Citizen Opinion Survey, going back 30 years. “And our property values are escalating, some would argue, to an all-time high.”
Then Moran asked again, “What are they trying to fix in all of this? … A group of … sly Democrats [is trying] to manipulate a Democrat seat on this board.”
Moran further pointed out that, in 1992, a Single-Member Districts voting system was implemented in the county, but two years later, “The voters dismantled it.”
In advocating for the Charter amendment in 2018, Moran continued, “These sly Democrats” contended that County Commission races would be less expensive if candidates had to campaign in districts, instead of running countywide.
He also pointed out that, following the Oct. 27 and Nov. 2 public hearings during which the majority of the commissioners approved two high-rise hotels on Siesta Key, “We got some very aggressive emails … from people who didn’t get what they wanted.”
Moran indicated that many of the emails included statements that the senders would not vote again for the commissioners who approved the hotels.” Yet, he continued, they can only vote for the commissioner who represents the district in which they live. “They can’t vote for four of us.”
Moran also repeated a remark he made in October: It will be necessary for the commission to redistrict every odd-numbered year, as allowed by the Florida Statutes, as long as Single-Member Districts is in effect. That is the only way to ensure that the population is as evenly divided as possible among the districts, he has pointed out.
Therefore, Moran said on Nov. 15, citizens “could go six to eight years and never be able to vote for even the one person.”
“Our old system was so much better,” Detert added. “You got to vote every single time for all of us.”