Current language in City Charter allows for special elections on Charter changes
On a 4-1 vote this week, the Sarasota city commissioners approved a referendum for the Nov. 8 General Election ballot regarding the scheduling of future referenda on Sarasota City Charter amendments.
Formally, as laid out in the ordinance that the board adopted, voters who live in the city will be asked whether they wish to ensure that amendments to the City Charter cannot be placed on any ballot but a general election ballot. Further, that general election would have to take place no earlier than 90 days following the adoption of the necessary ordinance.
As City Attorney Robert Fournier explained in the July 18 agenda request form for the item, the Charter says that any referendum on a proposed amendment to the Charter “may be conducted at a special election held no earlier than 90 days after the effective date of the ordinance scheduling the referendum and no later than the date of the next general election after the effective date of the ordinance scheduling the referendum.”
During the July 18 commission meeting, Fournier pointed out that a general election, by definition, is one held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years.
The reason for the minimum wait of 90 days laid out in the Charter, he added, was “so you don’t quickly put something on the ballot and the election’s two days away and nobody knows what it’s about.”
On March 28, the commissioners previously considered putting the amendment-scheduling question on the ballot. At that time, Mayor Erik Arroyo noted on July 18, both Commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Liz Alpert voted against moving all Charter amendment referenda to general elections. They talked then, he added, about the importance of flexibility in scheduling such votes.
During the July 18 discussion, Alpert said, “I don’t think [a proposal to amend the Charter normally should be put before the voters] at any other time than at the general election, but I just feel uncomfortable if there’s something that really calls for a change to our Charter that can’t wait two years. I just don’t want to tie the hands of any future commission.”
However, after hearing from eight members of the public who urged them to put the question on the Nov. 8 ballot, Alpert told her colleagues that she had changed her mind.
Ahearn-Koch did not modify her position; as a result, she cast the “No” vote.
“I see this as a limiting move,” Ahearn-Koch said, in regard to actions of city commissions in coming years. “We don’t know what the future holds,” she added. At times, a special election might be necessary, Ahearn-Koch pointed out.
Speakers urge commissioners to proceed with Nov. 8 referendum
All of the speakers who addressed the commissioners during the July 18 public hearing were members — and/or supporters — of the coalition that worked to change the dates of the city commission elections from a March/May schedule to an August/November schedule.
Former Sarasota Mayor and City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell, who was co-chair of that coalition — also referred to then as the Decide the Date coalition — provided a number of statistics to underscore how public participation had improved with the implementation of that new schedule. She also noted the far higher turnout of voters in general elections than in special elections.
As more people move to the city of Sarasota, Atwell told the commissioners, “One extremely positive effect is the growing diversity in our community. Between 2010 and ,” she continued, the city’s multi-racial population grew by nearly 370% “and now represents 10% of the community as a whole.”
The city’s white majority has fallen from the 75% level, Atwell added, to the 66% mark.
When the City Commission elections were conducted in 2015 and 2017, she said, Black voters accounted for only 4% of the turnout. In the 2020 General Election — the first one since Change the Date coalition won voter support for the schedule change — the percentage of Black voters more than doubled, she pointed out, to 8.64%.
Moreover, Atwell noted, in 2020, the turnout of Hispanic voters in the city rose to 1,425, compared to 169 in the 2017 City Commission election. The 2020 figure reflected a 743% increase, Atwell said.
Referring to Charter changes, she stressed, “Keeping anything of this magnitude off the general election cycles tells those broad voices that you would rather move forward without them. That is not the message I want them to hear.”
Christine Robinson, a former county commissioner who serves as executive director of the Argus Foundation — which also was part of the Change the Date coalition — also urged the city commissioners to put the Charter amendment question on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot.
The Charter, she emphasized, “is the citizens’ Charter, and the voters get to change it. They did change it in 2018,” she added, referring to the majority support for moving the city election schedule to August and November.
Robinson further reminded the commissioners that, the last time they addressed the amendment before them that day, some of them talked about trusting future commissions “to do the right thing.”
Robinson added, “Respectfully, Change the Date was necessary because the City Commission in the fall of 2017 wouldn’t place the issue on the ballot.”
Commissioner Hagen Brody proposed putting the election schedule question to the voters, she pointed out, but his colleagues turned him down.
“As a result,” Robinson said, “one of the most diverse movements in the history of this city was born,” and the Change the Date coalition was able to get the election schedule referendum on the November 2018 General Election ballot.
“This amendment,” Robinson said of the measure before the commissioners that day, “protects the citizens against poor decisions.”
Mary Dougherty, executive director of the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, added, “The driving motivation here should be to involve as many voters as possible.”
Further, former City and County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo urged the city commissioners to proceed with placing the amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot. “I am normally a fan of flexibility in things,” he said, “but rigidity is what is required here.”
Following the remarks of the speakers, Commissioner Brody characterized the voter turnout in special elections as “just extremely pitiful.”
He cited voter statistics in the low teens for City Commission elections conducted in March and May, prior to voters’ approval of the Change the Date amendment.
As a result of the latter action, Brody added, the city has the most diverse commission in its history, from the standpoints of race and age, for examples.
Brody also pointed out, “Everybody up here knows that there are special interests in this community that use [low voter turnout in special elections] as a tool to make changes that are not supported by the majority or the broad cross sections of our community.”
Vice Mayor Kyle Battie added, “I don’t see how anyone can say you’re for the people and not have all the people have their voices heard. That’s completely hypocritical.”
He also noted, “To give everyone the opportunity to avail themselves of the democratic process of voting … is as fair an idea as we have.”
Brody made the motion to put the proposed amendment on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot, and Battie seconded it. Then, with City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs calling the roll, Ahearn-Koch cast the lone “No” vote.