Question about Single-Member Districts voting system to be on 2021 Sarasota County Citizen Opinion Survey

Commissioners also affirm desire to see questions regarding the amount of county land preserved from development and reluctance of residents to convert from septic tanks to county sewer service

These are the results of the Nov. 6, 2018 vote on the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment. Image courtesy Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office

This week, the Sarasota County commissioners affirmed for County Administrator Jonathan Lewis that they want a question on the 2021 Citizen Opinion Survey that will gauge voters’ opinion of the Single-Member Districts amendment to the Sarasota County Charter.

After the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE) was able to get the citizen-initiated measure placed on the November 2018 General Election ballot, almost 60% of voters approved it. The voting system went into effect for the 2020 election.

Commissioners consistently have voiced their opposition to it, saying voters have told them they did not understand how it would work.

The Single-Member Districts amendment to the Charter allows a voter to cast a ballot only for a County Commission candidate who lives in the same district as the voter. Previously, voters were able to cast ballots in each County Commission race in an election year.

In November 2020, three of the five district seats were up for election; therefore, voters in the other two districts — 2 and 4 — were unable to participate in the County Commission races.

However, SAFE President Kindra Muntz has maintained that the expense of countywide elections was a primary reason people had been reluctant to campaign for board seats. “In 2020, for the first time in decades,” she told The Sarasota News Leader in late April, “qualified local candidates of both major political parties competed to represent their district to serve on the County Commission. That competition was good for the voters and good for the county.”

During remarks to the commissioners as part of their May 18 regular meeting, Lewis reported that he had spoken with the consulting firm that assists the University of South Florida’s Institute of Government in conducting the annual Citizen Opinion Survey and compiling the results. The survey began about 28 years ago, Lewis noted.

This graphic provides details about the locations of the residents who participated in the 2020 Citizen Opinion Survey. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“We do try to keep [it] to about 15 minutes,” Lewis added of the time allowed for a resident to take the survey.

Last year, Lewis continued, Commissioner Nancy Detert asked for a new question in 2021 about Single-Member Districts: “How does the community feel about being able to vote for only one commissioner every four years?” as Lewis phrased it.

A second question commissioners raised during a prior discussion, he noted, involves residents’ knowledge about how much of the county’s land area is under conservation easements or protected from development by county programs.

“The [consulting] company has informed us — absolutely, they could [put those two questions in the 2021 survey],” Lewis added.

“How many questions are they going to ask?” Detert inquired of Lewis.

“I don’t have the number,” he replied.

The survey is conducted by phone, Lewis reminded her.

“I actually got surveyed one year,” Detert pointed out. “I felt like the questions were slanted to ‘Yeah, the county’s great.’”

In regard to Single-Member Districts, she said, “What I’d like to see is [a question asking], ‘Now that you’ve taken [the voting system] for a trial run, would you like to continue that way or do you think it should be reviewed?”

Commissioner Nancy Detert. News Leader image

Additionally, Detert said, “Switching from one sludge problem to another,” she would like to see a question about septic tanks put on the 2021 survey: “If we made it easy for you to convert [from use of a septic tank to a county sewer connection], what would stop you from hooking up?”

“If the answer is the price,” she continued, “maybe we can work on that,” possibly by increasing the resident’s property tax payments over time to cover the expense.

“We all presume it’s the cost,” she pointed out, referring to some people’s reluctance to give up their septic tanks. “Maybe it’s something else.”

Then Detert asked for a third question, which would ask each person about the best way to provide him or her information about county programs and actions.

“There’s actually a question around that in the survey,” Lewis replied.

After Detert concluded her comments, Chair Alan Maio told her, “I don’t see any objection to any of the questions that you proffered …”

Then, addressing Lewis, Maio said, “Our communications people need to be armed … should they get asked the question about the exact number of square miles protected or owned by jurisdictions [in the county].”

Maio has talked about that topic numerous times over the past months, pointing out that approximately one-third of county land is protected in perpetuity.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked Lewis when the survey would begin.

Calls usually are made in June, Lewis responded, with the results provided to the commissioners in September.

Finally, with no other comments from board members, Maio told Lewis he had the go-ahead for the questions discussed that day.