Oct. 14 public hearing set on Charter Review Board’s proposed amendments requiring vetting of citizen-initiated petitions for legal sufficiency and expense

Effort a response to two Charter amendments Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino wrote, which won passage in November 2018

The majority of the county’s Charter Review Board members are present as the July 22 meeting gets underway. News Leader image

Barring any new disruption in the schedule, on Wednesday, Oct. 14, at 6 p.m., the Sarasota County Charter Review Board will conduct a public hearing on new restrictions to the citizen-initiated petition process for Charter amendments.

Meeting on July 22 for the first time since January, as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the members voted unanimously to split its own proposed amendment into two amendments, as suggested by Assistant County Attorney Sarah Blackwell, who serves as adviser to the group.

The first would say that any proposed amendment “shall not conflict with the Florida Constitution, general law, or the Charter.” The second would necessitate a county review of any citizen-initiated petition for legal sufficiency and fiscal impact. It also would require a sponsor to appear before the Charter Review Board, so the members could vet the amendment in public before it was placed on a ballot — unless the board’s meeting schedule made the process impossible.

This is the first proposed amendment; the final line will be deleted. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Yet another provision of the second proposed amendment calls for a sponsor to use a form, which would be “specified by County ordinance” and include, “at a minimum, the proposed language of the Charter amendment, and the ballot title and ballot question, which shall comply with state law.”

When Chair Joe Justice of North Port asked what would happen if one of the proposed amendments failed and the other won voter approval, Blackwell replied, “They’re not dependent on each other.” If only one won passage, she added, then it would become part of the Sarasota County Charter.

Before the vote to schedule the October public hearing, Charter Review Board member David Samuel of Venice told his colleagues, “This is long overdue. I was looking all this over, and I could not believe there was no actual form [for a petition sponsor to use]. You could practically write anything down and submit it,” he added. “That is sort of unbelievable to me.”

Charter Review Board member James Gabbert of Sarasota, who chaired the committee that handled the crafting of the proposed revisions, noted that the members held numerous sessions to iron out the details. “We’ve come to consensus with the committee,” he said. “I think it’s a great step forward.”

This is the primary section of the proposed second amendment. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During the board’s Jan. 15 meeting, member Donna Barcomb of Sarasota stressed that the process “has nothing to do with Single-Member Districts.”

She was referring to the Charter amendment voters approved during the November 2018 General Election, which says that only voters who reside in the same district as candidates who are running for the County Commission can cast ballots for those candidates.

Previously, County Commission candidates were elected countywide. The Nov. 3 General Election will be the first in which the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment is in effect since it passed.

Charter Review Board members made it clear in January that their new proposed amendments would be designed to prevent initiatives such as those of Siesta Key resident Michael Cosentino. During the November 2018 General Election, voters approved two amendments Cosentino had written in the summer of 2016. Cosentino has told The Sarasota News Leader that he crafted them in an effort not only to return a vacated segment of North Beach Road to public ownership but also to prevent any future County Commission vote that would vacate a county-owned right of way with so much as a water view.

In late October 2019, 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Hunter Carroll ruled that Amendment 3.9, which pertained only to North Beach Road, “is contrary to Sarasota’s Charter and is therefore invalid.” He then ordered that the first sentence of Amendment 3.10, regarding future vacations of county rights of way, be severed from the remainder of that section, writing that its opening statement conflicts with state law.

This is Sarasota County Charter Section 3.9, which was approved on Nov. 6, 2018. Image courtesy of the Office of the Sarasota County Clerk of Court and County Comptroller
This is the text of Charter Section 3.10, as approved by voters on Nov. 6, 2018. Image courtesy of the Office of the Sarasota County Clerk of Court and County Comptroller

Cosentino has appealed those rulings to Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal.

Facets of the review process

As agreed by the Charter Review Board members on July 22, their second proposed amendment would require the county review for legal sufficiency “upon collection of validated signatures of 1% of registered voters of the County as of the last general election.”
Further, the legal review would have to be completed within 30 days of the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office’s notifying county staff that the necessary number of signatures had been obtained.

Additionally, the proposed amendment says, “A fiscal impact statement of no more than 75 words prepared by the County shall accompany any Charter amendment proposed by petition.” That statement would appear below the ballot question on the ballot, the amendment adds. That statement, too, would have to be prepared “upon collection of validated signatures of 1% of registered voters,” with the county review completed within 30 days.

Charter Review Board Chair Joe Justice discusses the draft amendment on Jan. 15. File image

Chair Justice told his colleagues that he would like to add a revision that would require the sponsor of a petition to provide an estimate of the start-up expense of implementing the proposed amendment and any annual costs to the county, if the amendment were approved. He wanted to see that information made available to the public upfront, he added, before any petitions were gathered.

“So that theoretically anyone signing the petition knows the … proposed expenditures and costs,” even before the 1% threshold were reached? Vice Chair Joseph Hudgins of Sarasota asked.

“Yes,” Justice replied.

“And what if it’s wrong?” Hudgins asked, referring to the information from the sponsor.

“It’s his estimate,” Justice said. “I’m almost positive his estimate will not agree with the county’s. I’m looking for thoughts and comments on that,” Justice added. “Should we include that?”

“I think it could be kind of ‘pie in the sky,’” board member Deborah L. LaPinska of Venice told Justice. “It could be totally underestimated, which is what I think they would lean towards, so people could sign something that might be disingenuous.”

Other members of the board agreed with LaPinska, so Justice dropped his proposal.

In regard to the requirement that the sponsor of a petition appear before the Charter Review Board so the members can review the proposal, Assistant County Attorney Blackwell also recommended a tweak.

Blackwell suggested that the language in the second proposed amendment be revised to say, “unless no meetings of the Charter Review Board are held during [the time frame provided in the proposed amendment].”

The timeline calls for the sponsor to appear before that board “between the time of submitting a Charter amendment petition and June 1st of the year of the general election on the proposed Charter amendment …”

Mike Cosentino addresses the county commissioners on June 3. File Leader image

Blackwell pointed out that that section, as written, already says that a vote of the majority of the Charter Review Board members can waive a presentation by the sponsor.” Yet, she added, she felt that did not go far enough to cover unexpected situations, such as the pandemic.

“But we could always call a special meeting,” Vice Chair Hudgins told her.

“You could,” Blackwell replied. “But think about what was going on most recently. We were not having any meetings, so that could happen.”

Without the tweak she proposed, she said, a sponsor “could be out of luck.”

“Valid point,” Chair Justice responded.

Hudgins ended up making the motion to call for the revision of the language, and it passed unanimously.

As for the scheduling of their next session: “That [Oct. 14 meeting] might actually happen,” Justice said. “Who knows.”

The board members conducted their July 22 meeting in the Commission Chambers in the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota. As with the County Commission meetings in that room, the chairs for the Charter Review Board members were spaced apart to comply with federal social distancing guidelines. The Oct. 14 meeting also is set to be conducted in the Commission Chambers located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota.

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