On unanimous vote, Charter Review Board members approve proposed changes to Sarasota County Charter regarding citizen-initiated amendments

Board member Barcomb stresses to opponents that goal is to ensure voters are educated about any proposed Charter changes

Image from the Charter Review Board’s agenda for the Oct. 14 meeting. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Although seven members of the public criticized them over the proposal, the six Sarasota County Charter Review Board members present for the Oct. 14 meeting unanimously approved amendments to the Charter that would necessitate additional steps before a citizen-initiated amendment could be placed on a ballot.

Board member James Gabbert, a Sarasota developer, made the motion. Board member David Samuel of Venice seconded it.

Although the Charter Review Board members voted in July — during their previous meeting — to split their proposed changes to the Charter into two amendments, Gabbert’s motion did not make that distinction.

(At the outset of the meeting this week, the board members approved their July 22 meeting minutes, which reflected that decision.)

Additionally on Oct. 14, Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck told the board members before the vote that he understood that seven of them — out of 10 — would have to approve a motion to put the proposed amendments on the ballot, or the vote would be invalid. However, Assistant County Attorney Sarah Blackwell, who serves as the adviser to the board, explained that, according to the Charter Review Board’s bylaws, only two-thirds of the board members must agree on such action.

The board is supposed to have 10 members, she pointed out, but one seat is vacant. “So six votes is two-thirds for passage.”

Further, when asked the next steps after the board’s vote that evening, Blackwell pointed out that the County Commission will have to approve an ordinance to place the amendments on the ballot for the next General Election, which would be in 2022.

This is the section of the Charter Review Board minutes from the July 22 meeting regarding the vote on splitting the proposed Charter amendments. The board members approved the minutes on Oct. 14 with no changes. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Among the provisions of the recommended changes to the county Charter would be the necessity of ensuring that a proposed amendment “not conflict with the Florida Constitution, general law, or the Charter.”

Moreover, a group working on a citizen-initiated Charter amendment would have to gather signatures of at least 10% of the number of registered voters in each of the five County Commission districts at the time of the last general election.

“We chose to have each district represented,” board member Donna Barcomb of Sarasota explained, because of the voters’ passage in November 2018 of the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment. That modified the election of county commissioners to require that only voters who reside in the same district as a candidate may vote for a candidate for that district seat. Previously, commissioners were elected countywide. The amendment is in effect as of this election year.

The concern, Barcomb added, was that a person proposing an amendment could be working on a measure, for example, that would be targeted to an issue in District 1 “but maybe negatively affect District 5. So we felt that we wanted each district to be equally represented in regards to its support.. … [The language] was meant to [ensure that a proposed amendment would] be representative of the entire county and not just maybe one district,” Barcomb said.

Among the other 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.

Lourdes Ramirez. Contributed image

Among the seven speakers during the public hearing, Lourdes Ramirez of Siesta Key, who said she was appearing as a private citizen, pointed out that she is a Republican, as are all the Charter Review Board members, and “Republicans are supposed to be about limited government, deregulation and lower taxes. Yet, time and time again, I see supposedly Republican officials increase the size of government, add regulations that impact citizens’ rights, and add another layer of bureaucracy that comes with a taxpayer cost.”

She continued, “These proposed changes today add extra layers of regulations and bureaucracy on citizens’ rights to access their own Charter.”

The Sarasota County Charter has been in existence for about 50 years, Ramirez noted. It has enabled citizens to “create their own laws.”

“The government that’s supposed to be for the people,” she said, was upset about the passage of the Single-Member Districts amendment. “When informed with the truth,” she continued, citizens “will make the right decisions. We don’t need your interference in our rights for our own good.”

However, CRB member Barcomb stressed that the Single-Member Districts amendment was not the focus of the Charter Review Board’s proposed changes to the Charter.

The initiative began in January 2019, Barcomb pointed out. “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.”

She denied accusations attorney Lobeck made about the influence of what he called “the developer cabal” in the proposal of the new Charter amendments.

Charter Review Board member Donna Barcomb. file image

Lobeck talked about developers selecting “and bankrolling” candidates for County Commission so the developers can “keep a tight control over county government.”

The Single-Member Districts amendment, he pointed out, was designed to lower the expense of County Commission races so people not backed by developers would have a better chance at winning seats. As a result, he continued, the Aug. 18 Republican Primary for the District 1 seat was “a squeaker,” with Mike Hutchinson of Sarasota losing narrowly to incumbent Michael Moran. (According to the unofficial results, Moran won 51.78% of the votes.)

Addressing Lobeck, who was still in the audience, Barcomb added with a laugh, “I’m not supported by anybody else,” as he should have realized, she indicated, by taking a look at the names of her supporters in her last campaign.

“It’s pretty clear what side you’re on at this point,” Lobeck responded.

“I have done everything on my own,” she told him.

The genesis of the Charter Review Board action

Barcomb also addressed Siesta Key resident Michael Cosentino, who made comments during the public hearing, as well.

“I felt there was a huge issue with the 2018 election, and I don’t think people were well educated about the amendments,” she reiterated her earlier point. Looking at Cosentino, she added, “Especially yours.”

During his remarks, Cosentino emphasized that two Charter amendments he wrote won passage with more than 60% of the vote in 2018. One of them said the County Commission could not sell any county-owned land or right of way that had even a waterfront vista. The second called for the commission to rescind its May 2016 vacation of a 373-foot-long segment of North Beach Road on Siesta Key or to reacquire the right of way and return it to public use.

Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Hunter Carroll declared the amendment regarding North Beach Road to be invalid because of its conflict with the county Charter. Carroll also ruled that the first sentence of the other amendment was invalid because of conflicts with several state statutes, but he said it could be severed from the rest of that amendment, leaving the remainder in the Charter. He characterized the second sentence of that amendment as “encouragement to maximize rights-of-way use for public access and viewing waterfront vistas.”

Mike Cosentino addresses the County Commission on Aug. 29, 2018, during a public hearing on his proposed Charter amendments. File photo

In his ruling, Carroll also pointed out, “In considering a legal challenge to charter amendments such as these, courts presume the amendments to be valid and reasonably construe them to be valid, if possible. If, however, an amendment is unconstitutional, courts must strike the offending amendment even though it means the will of the majority of the electors who voted on the issue cannot be carried out. That is the situation here. The Court does not take this step lightly.”

“It would be mildly stated to say that his decision was legally infirm,” Cosentino told the Charter Review Board members on Oct. 14, referring to Carroll.

The ruling is on appeal, Cosentino added, and he expects Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal to overturn Carroll’s decision.

During his remarks, Cosentino also castigated the Charter Review Board (CRB) members for requiring public presentations to them of any proposed, citizen-initiated amendments.

In May 2018, he said, he appeared before the CRB during the Open to the Public period to talk about his amendments. As a result, he continued, the CRB members allowed him to address them for 5 minutes at their next meeting. At that time, he continued, he asked for 20 minutes to explain what he was proposing.

However, at that second meeting, Cosentino told the board members on Oct. 14, a motion put forth by CRB member Gabbert, made it clear that “You didn’t want to hear what I had to say. Now you’re putting in a rule that you want to hear what I have to say.”
Cosentino called the action hypocritical.

If the board members approved their proposed amendments that evening, he continued, his voice quavering, “I will crush this in court. It is completely unconstitutional in every form, and you guys, in my opinion, need to start serving the public, which you’re currently not doing, as evidenced by this proposal.”

These are the Charter Review Board members as of January. Those absent on Oct. 14 were Pat Wayman, Jody Hudgins and Anthony Sawyer. Image courtesy Sarasota County

When he addressed the CRB members, attorney Lobeck talked of the proposed language that would require the County Commission “to say, ‘Yes, [a proposed amendment] is legally sufficient.’ A court should decide that.”

The fiscal impact provision, Lobeck added, represents “another opportunity for the county [commissioners] to repeal an amendment that they don’t like, because that [review] is extremely subjective.”

Dan Lobeck addresses the County Commission on Oct. 30, 2019. File image

Lobeck then called the necessity for a presentation to the CRB of any proposed Charter amendment “a stage for opponents to attack the change publicly. … Each and every one of these [proposals is] indefensible,” Lobeck said, adding that the goal is to squash citizen-initiated amendments, as they are efforts “to make an end run around the politicians.”

The citizen-initiated amendment process, Lobeck pointed out, “is the last opportunity the people have to get something done if their elected officials are not responsive to the public will.”

Two other speakers during the hearing — Doreen Dupont of Longboat Key and Krista Lohr of Sarasota — are Democrats seeking seats on the Charter Review Board. Lohr is a candidate for a District 1 seat, while Dupont is seeking a District 2 seat.

“I believe that the people should have a say in what’s going on,” Dupont told the CRB members. “Most people in this county don’t even know what you do. It’s disgraceful.”

“We need the people to have a bigger voice in government, not to suppress it and [these proposed amendments are] exactly what that would do,” Lohr said. “I don’t feel represented, and I don’t feel heard by my elected officials,” she added, which is why she is running for the Charter Review Board.