Plurality of county residents responding to 2021 Citizen Opinion Survey expresses support for Single-Member Districts voting method for County Commission seats

Only 26% of respondents disagree with change

This graphic shows the breakdown of responses to the survey question about Single-Member Districts. Image courtesy Sarasota County

About 40% of the 1,250 respondents to Sarasota County’s 2021 Citizen Opinion Survey expressed support for the Single-Member Districts voting method that citizens approved during the November 2018 General Election, Joshua Scacco, a professor at the University of South Florida, told the County Commission this week.

Using a scale of 1 to 5, Scacco added, that meant the support reflected a score of about 3.3.

Only 26% of the respondents disagreed with the change, he said.

A team with the University of South Florida’s Institute of Government handles the survey each year. Its partner is HCP Associates of Tampa.

In May, Commissioner Nancy Detert stressed to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis that she wanted a question on the 2021 survey about Single-Member Districts. She and her colleagues over the past year have contended that the people who approved the Sarasota County Charter amendment in 2018 did not understand it.

That amendment restricts voters in a district to voting just for County Commission candidates who live in the same district. Previously, commission races were contested countywide.

During a Sept. 28 exchange with Scacco, at the conclusion of the presentation of the survey results, Detert alluded to two speakers who criticized the board members earlier that morning for requesting that the question be on the survey.

Joshua Scacco. Image courtesy University of South Florida

“Did anyone in the general public complain that you asked certain questions?” Detert asked Scacco.

A professional call center handles the actual survey after the USF/HCP team has developed the questions, he replied. “We would have to go back to the transcripts of that particular question to get an idea.”

Pat Rounds addresses the commissioners on Sept. 28. News Leader image

Scacco added, “I wouldn’t expect that there would be much there.” Nonetheless, he told Detert that he would make certain to include the information in a final report on the survey, which the team would deliver next month. (See the related article in this issue.)

During the Open to the Public period for comments at the start of the Sept. 28 board meeting, Pat Rounds of Sarasota, a member of a group called Citizens for District Power, reminded the commissioners that 60% of the citizens who participated in the November 2018 referendum on Single-Member Districts approved it.

Rounds contended that the commissioners began “sowing seeds of doubt” about the voting system “immediately after the first three districts elected commissioners by Single-Member Districts [in November 2020].”

Rounds also pointed out, “One of you even likened Single-Member Districts to a question about septic tanks [also requested for inclusion in the 2021 survey], calling [the voting system] ‘sludge.’”

Rounds was referencing a comment Detert made during the May discussion.

“The people of Sarasota County have now told you twice that they want direct representation and accountability for county commissioners,” Rounds continued. “Will you finally listen?”

Noting that they also had asked the county’s elected Charter Review Board members to undertake an analysis of the effects of Single-Member Districts, Rounds urged the commissioners, “Please stop any review of Single-Member Districts as a step on the path to justify a repeal effort. Each district should experience Single-Member Districts for at least a full term before any ‘review’ is even considered. Do you agree?”

As usual with Open to the Public comments, no commissioner engaged Rounds in discussion.

The second speaker, Tom Matrullo of Sarasota, also pointed to the commissioners’ comments about voters having been confused. “Your new survey resoundingly shows the opposite,” he said. “Sarasotans want and need Single-Member Districts voting.”

He further referenced the fact that survey respondents in 2020 reported their top stressor was population growth and new development and that that remained the primary issue of concern this year.

“Around the county,” Matrullo continued, ”people are anxious, upset and even enraged at how oversized developments receive blanket approval despite the reasoned objections of those whose homes, neighborhoods and lifestyles are impacted.”

He added, “Development issues usually affect people within a single district.” He noted the controversy on Siesta Key regarding proposals for four hotel projects with room counts ranging from 100 to 170, for an example. “The mega hotels on Siesta Key have little direct impact on the people of Old Miakka,” Matrullo said, “and threats to the rural life of Old Miakka do not impinge on folks in Wellen Park.”

Old Miakka is located in the far eastern portion of the county; Wellen Park is near Venice.

A graphic shows the Old Miakka Planning Area, outlined in blue, as presented in a county neighborhood plan completed in 2006. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“The county currently has no satellite offices, online facilities or public town halls,” he stressed, through which the board members could engage the public in discussion about issues at the district level. “District dialogue must become a priority.”

After the presentation of the survey results, Commissioner Christian Ziegler proved to be the only board member who did voice continuing anger over Single-Member Districts.

“It’s going to be tough to change my mind on just how bad of a form of government that is,” Ziegler said. “I think people want to vote for all the commissioners. … But it’s tough to get that thought out, you know, in a survey … unless you have a conversation with people. This doesn’t change my mind on Single-Member Districts.”

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