Political action committee linked to Republican activists in Tallahassee trying to sway Sarasota County voters ahead of March 8 Single-Member Districts referendum

Chair of Sun Coast Alliance an officer of more than 140 ‘dark money’ organizations through the years

This is the Sun Coast Alliance mailer that has been going to voters in Sarasota County. Contributed images

As Sarasota County citizens have been receiving vote-by-mail ballots for the March 8 Special Election, they also have been getting mailers from an organization called Sun Coast Alliance, urging them to repeal the Single-Member Districts voting system for the County Commission.

Advocates for Single-Member Districts are warning the public about the initiative pursued by the political action committee (PAC), whose registered agent is based in Tallahassee.

The Single-Member Districts system was added to the Sarasota County Charter after the amendment won nearly 60% of voters’ support during the November 2018 General Election.

In a blog posted last week, Citizens for District Power (CDP) noted the Sarasota County commissioners’ desire to remove the Single-Member Districts language from the Charter.

The voting system allows a citizen to vote only for County Commission candidates who live in the same district as the citizen. Except for a two-year period in the early 1990s, commissioners were elected countywide prior to the 2018 passage of the amendment. Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck, president of the nonprofit organization Control Growth Now, has pointed out that developers were successful in removing Single-Member Districts from the Charter after that initial period.

Commissioners maintain that board members’ accountability to the public is diluted by the voting system. They also have claimed that citizens who voted for the measure in 2018 did not understand what the ballot question meant.

This is the section of the Sarasota County Charter amended after the November 2018 election, which includes the language establishing Single-Member District voting. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Conversely, Kindra Muntz, president of the nonprofit organization Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE) — which led the petition drive to get Single-Member Districts on that 2018 ballot — has pointed out that, during the 2020 election for three commission seats, credible candidates filed for office, knowing they did not have to raise money to campaign countywide. Previously, too many people were deterred from running for the board, she has stressed, because of the cost.

In the recent blog post, Citizens for District Power pointed out, “Glitzy and turgid ads now saturating our airwaves, phones, and social media are urging us to use our voting power to repeal the people’s choice of Single Member Districts.”

The blog also contends not only the five sitting county commissioners but also “the Big Money interests that installed them as the concierge desk for developers,” want to ensure that voters rid the county Charter of the Single-Member Districts system.

Richard Coates. Image from his law firm’s website

A Sarasota News Leader check of Florida Division of Elections records found that the Sun Coast Alliance was organized in October 2018. Its treasurer is William S. Jones, whose address is the same as that of the PAC — 115 E. Park Ave., Suite 1, in Tallahassee. However, the phone number provided for the PAC is 202-239-1642. A Feb. 14 reverse Whitepages check found this response: “No name associated with this number.”

The 202 area code is for Washington, D.C.

The original registered agent for the PAC was Emmett “Bucky” Mitchell IV of the Coates Law Firm in Tallahassee. In May 2020, Sun Coast Alliance filed a new form with the Florida Division of Elections, naming Richard E. Coates of the same law firm as its registered agent.

The Alliance’s address, listed on the mailer about the March 8 election, is a UPS store on Bee Ridge Road in Sarasota. The store has mailboxes for rent.

The News Leader also noted that approximately 145 PACs or related types of committees for which Jones has served as treasurer. Many of them have been closed. Among the active ones are Defending the American Dream, Empowering Women Leaders, Build the Bench, 21st Century Public Servant, A Safer Jacksonville For All, Accountability in Government Inc., American Values PAC, Americans for Liberty and Prosperity Inc., Building Florida’s Future, and Citizens Speaking Out Committee Inc.

This is a partial list of all the political action committees and related organizations for which William Stafford Jones has served as an officer. Image from the Florida Division of Elections website

Timing and money

On Jan. 25, Sun Coast Alliance received a $100,000 contribution from Serious Conservatives, which lists the same Tallahassee address as Sun Coast Alliance. That was the only money the PAC received that month, and none was reported for December 2021.

In early December 2021, the Sarasota county commissioners had voted unanimously to put the repeal of Single-Member Districts ballot on the March 8 ballot with the Sarasota County School District’s question about renewal of a special 1-mill tax that has been in place since 2002. The revenue from that tax pays for a multitude of programs for students that Sarasota School Board members say the district could not afford otherwise, including an extra 30 minutes of instruction time per day.

According to a News Leader review of Florida Division of Elections records this week, through January, Serious Conservatives had had no contributions since it received $15,000 for the month of January 2021.

A document filed with the Division of Elections shows that Serious Conservatives was organized in March 2020 with Jones as its chair and treasurer.

On June 23, 2020, the News Leader found, Benderson Development Co. gave the Sun Coast Alliance $9,000.

This is the proposed amendment to the Sarasota County Charter, to eliminate Single-Member District voting. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A brief history of Jones’ PACs’ involvement in elections

In further research, the News Leader learned from a Wikipedia entry on William “Stafford” Jones that he “was on the Florida state delegation for the 2020 Republican National Convention and that he served for many years as chair of the Alachua County Republican Party.

“Jones is known for creating dozens of political action committees that have spent millions of dollars in Florida state elections,” the entry continued. “In 2021, the nonpartisan watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington reported that two of Jones’ organizations falsely reported on their tax returns that they engaged in no political activities and failed to disclose more than $1 million in political contributions. Florida Democrats have complained that Jones’ organizations have funded spoiler candidates and used deceptive tactics.”

Wikipedia also noted, “In 2012, Jones was a key figure in redrawing Florida’s congressional districts that the Florida Supreme Court declared unconstitutional because they were gerrymandered with ‘partisan intent.’ Jones helped find citizens to submit maps during the redistricting process that had been pre-drawn by Republican consultants and to provide scripted public comment based on Republican talking points.”

Further, the News Leader read a Sept. 20, 2012 article in the Broward Palm Beach New Times that reported on residents in Delray having received a mailer about Democratic Sen. Maria Sachs “contributing to George W. Bush ‘more than once’ and being in cahoots with [former Florida Secretary of State] Katherine Harris in disenfranchising voters.”

The article adds, “The mailers, from a group called Progressives, are intended to sound as if a liberal organization is warning people not to vote for Sachs by tying her to W. and other assorted characters from the right’s rogues gallery, Only problem is, Progressives is actually a Republican-linked group.”

The reporter, Chris Joseph, went on to explain that Progressives “is chaired by one William S. Jones, who … also happens to chair the Liberty Foundation of Florida,” which had raised a little more than $2 million between May 24 and Aug. 9, 2012. “And most of those donations happen to come from the Florida Conservative Majority Committee.”

At that time, the article pointed out, the Florida Conservative Majority was “spearheaded by Republican Senate President Don Gaetz, Republican Majority Leader Andy Gardiner and Republican State Senator Joe Negron.”

This is Stafford Jones’ photo linked to his Twitter account. Image from Twitter

Reporter Joseph also noted that Richard Coates’ law firm’s mailing address was listed as the address for the Florida Conservative Majority. Coates was the general counsel for the Republican Party of Florida, Joseph added.

In the same vein as the Broward Palm Beach New Times article, the Tampa Bay Timesreported in April 2015 that Committee for Responsible Representation, whose chair was listed as Jones, was a major donor to Moving Tampa Forward, “the mysterious group whose attack ads stirred up last month’s City Council runoff …”

At that time, the article pointed out, Jones was “involved in more than two dozen political committees or electioneering organizations registered with the state.” Reporter Richard Danielson added that Jones, “who goes by Stafford Jones, runs the Gainesville political consulting and polling firm War Room Logistics and chairs the Alachua County Republican Executive Committee.”

In October 2016, the HistoricCity News in St. Augustine reported that Jones was behind “direct mail flyers attacking St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Shauver.” Those mailers came from the PAC Sun Coast Patriots, which had an address in Fort Myers, the article noted. Jones was both the chair and the treasurer of that PAC, the article said.

“Someone known only to Mr. Jones, perhaps, must really want an inexperienced, unqualified, puppet in the mayor’s seat,” the article said. “Wonder why that is?”

Yet another article that the News Leader found, in The Daytona Beach News-Journal in October 2020, said that a PACS chaired by Jones had contributed more than 80% of the money as of that date to the Palm Coast mayor, Milissa Holland, who was campaigning for re-election.

Reporter Frank Fernandez wrote, “The PAC money and other outside-the-county contributions helped Holland pay $22,700 to McLaughlin Media of Blauvelt, NY, for television advertising.

“The ads include one that stirred controversy last week for showing a photo of a Black man standing next to Holland’s challenger, Alan Lowe, and incorrectly stated that Lowe had been charged with theft. A complaint of petit theft was filed against Lowe nearly 30 years ago but no charges were filed.

“Lowe and others, including the Flagler County NAACP, criticized the ad as racial profiling. Lowe also said in a YouTube video that the Black man in the photo was a survivor of Hurricane Maria who Lowe met while helping to deliver aid to the island of Dominica.”