Public hearing set for Aug. 21 on Sarasota County Charter amendments

Photo by Norman Schimmel

Just seven days after the primary election, Sarasota County residents will have the opportunity to weigh in on a measure that could be on the general election ballot in November.

The County Commission will hold a public hearing on Aug. 21 on whether to amend the Sarasota County Charter to require a longer lead time before citizen-initiated petitions can be put on the ballot. The change is designed to make all future charter amendments conform to the same timeline for inclusion on ballots, regardless of how they were proposed.

It also is designed to save money. The estimated cost of a special election is about $500,000.

Without comment, the County Commission voted unanimously on July 11 to authorize advertisement of that public hearing at the request of the county’s Charter Review Board.

As it stands now, the county charter provides that any amendment proposed to it by citizen petition be voted on during a special election to be scheduled within 60 days after the filing of the proposed amendment with the supervisor of elections.

However, Charles A. Cooper, vice chairman of the Charter Review Board, pointed out in a July 10 memo to the County Commission that the wording of the ordinance regarding these citizen-initiated petitions “has caused confusion and uncertainty with members of the public with respect to the election date …”

He added that reading the provision together with the Florida Election Code makes it clear that the local governing body has to call for the special referendum by ordinance or resolution. “Without that official action,” Cooper continued, “the Supervisor of Elections does not have the authority to place the question on the ballot.”

Cooper added that the ordinance calling for the special election contains the ballot summary and the question, with directions that the amendment be placed on the ballot on a specific date. Therefore, the 60-day period commences on the effective date of the ordinance.

During the Charter Review Board’s May 15 meeting, 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.”

Still, Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck opposed the amendment during that May meeting. “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.”

Altogether, three new amendments the Charter Review Board has proposed for the Sarasota County Charter would provide that citizen-initiated amendments as well as those initiated by the County Commission, the Legislature and the Charter Review Board all be submitted to the voters during referenda held concurrently with the next general election, provided that a petition has been filed with the County Commission at least 120 days prior to that next election.

Additionally, the changes would provide that a citizen-initiated petition would be considered filed with the County Commission on the date the supervisor of elections notified the commission the requisite number of valid signatures had been obtained.

Finally, to clear up a question about the effective dates of amendments, a third proposal calls for any proposed amendment to include a statement that, if approved by a majority of the voters, the amendment becomes effective upon certification of the election results with the state’s Division of Elections.

The public hearing has been scheduled as soon as possible after 9 a.m. on Aug. 21. The County Commission is scheduled to meet that day at the Administration Building in downtown Sarasota, 1660 Ringling Blvd.