Plan to eliminate by-elections moves through Charter Board

Signature sunset and single-member districts also in the wings

Photo by Norman Schimmel

By-elections are unscheduled. Something happens. An elected official dies or another unexpected event forces an election. The Sarasota County Charter, for example, calls for a by-election within 60 days after citizens present a petition requesting a vote on a change to the charter.

If there is a regularly scheduled election in that 60-day period, fine. The regular election will suffice. But if there’s no such election scheduled, the charter calls for a special election on the proposed charter change. The cost is an estimated $500,000.

With that in mind, the members of the Sarasota County Charter Review Board decided on May 15 to proceed with an idea they’ve been toying with for more than a year – putting charter-change questions on the November ballot in presidential and off-year elections and killing the by-election concept.

The proposal would apply to all four ways a charter change can be put on the ballot. Now each measure uses a slightly different timeline, depending on the origin of the idea. Currently, the Florida Legislature, the Sarasota County Commission, the Sarasota County Charter Review Board and a citizens petition drive can all put a proposal on the ballot for citizen approval.

“This would provide the same methodology to get on the ballot,” said Charter Board Vice Chairman Charles Cooper of the proposal. Assistant County Attorney Kathleen Schneider said the 60-day provision was “unrealistic,” because the elections office needs at least eight or nine weeks “to get a ballot in place.”

Attorney Dan Lobeck was the only person to speak on the amendment, opposing it. “This would eliminate the ability of the County Commission to respond to an urgent need,” he said. “The drafters of the charter did this deliberately.”

The motion to set the proposal for a final public hearing on the amendment at the Charter Review Board level passed 5-1, with Marie Nisco in the minority. Four of the 10 board members were absent from the meeting: Frank Moore, David Del Purgatorio, Stefan Butz and Adam Miller.

To make the timeline for the November election, Charter Review Board Chairwoman Cathy Layton set the final public hearing on the issue for June 6 at 7 p.m. in the County Commission chambers at 1660 Ringling Blvd. Following the hearing, seven board members’ votes are needed to put the idea on the ballot.

Big charter issues loom

On Oct. 16, the charter board will hear presentations on two touchy matters, and maybe a committee report on a third hot potato.

For years, Layton has believed there needs to be a time limit on the validity of petition signatures. She previously tried to get support for a one-year time limit, but representatives of a host of citizens groups came forward to testify against that idea.

Layton now proposes a three-year time limit on the validity of petition signatures. That idea will be formally presented by Layton on Oct. 16. Citizens can comment on the merits of her idea after her presentation. The Charter Review Board will then decide if the proposal goes to the next step – evaluation by a special committee of Charter Board members. That action requires a two-thirds majority of votes of members present.

Sarasota businessman John Minder also will make a presentation at the October meeting, on a second issue. He proposes to expand the number of county commissioners to seven from five. Three of the seven would represent the municipal areas of the county – one each for Sarasota, Venice and North Port. The other four would be from districts created to contain roughly the same population level as the municipal districts.

Minder was one of the local applicants last fall for county administrator. He did not make the list of semi-finalists.

The third issue concerns single-member districts. Sarasota County citizens approved a charter amendment requiring single-member districts in 1992. That amendment said only citizens living within the district could vote in “their” county commission race.

The ballot question followed a citizens petition drive that collected more than 12,000 signatures. Two years later, a County-Commission-sponsored charter change abolished single-member districts, a decision that remains in effect to this day. Now every county voter can cast a ballot for all five county commissioners.

Augie Schmitz helped gather petitions in 1992, only to watch his efforts undone in 1994. “Money dictates. It’s what runs this machine,” he said. “We need to bring it under control.” He said eight charter counties in Florida use single-member districts.

A number of citizens spoke in favor of the idea during the Charter Board meeting May 15, including Pat Rounds. “Please formally consider single-member districts,” she said. “Other counties may have something to offer. I urge the Charter Review Board to reach out and hold additional public hearings on this issue.”

One citizen was not as supportive. “Big money is never going to go away,” said Cynthia Crowe.

In discussion before taking a vote, Charter Board member Jud Boedecker said, “I want to be able to vote for all those people who vote on our taxes and set the budget. Single-member district candidates tend to take a more parochial view, because they are only accountable to one district.”

Chairwoman Layton said, “Single-member districts have proven to be a disaster, and it was quickly reversed in 1994. You have people working against each other. I see this as a huge step backwards.”

By a two-thirds vote (4-2), the Charter Board referred single-member districts to a special committee for review. That committee may report back on Oct. 16.

So on Oct. 16, the Charter Review Board will decide whether it wants to pursue expansion of the County Commission to seven members and “sunset” petition signatures after three years. The “special committee” may also report on the single-member district issue.

Sarasota County commissioners viscerally dislike the Charter Review Board process. Sarasota is the only one of the 18 charter counties in Florida to have an elected (partisan, no less) charter board that meets regularly. Other counties use appointed boards that meet once every five or 10 years.

To keep the charter board under tight rein, the commissioners give the board virtually no money and regularly solicit and support like-minded candidates for the board. Since the late 1980s, the Charter Review Board has become more and more entangled in its self-approved bylaws. During the same time, most of the charter change proposals on the ballot have come from citizen petition initiatives, which are generally approved by the electorate. County Commission and Charter-Board proposals commonly fail to get voter approval.