County attorney indicates potential problems, if they were to win voter approval
Thanks to a unanimous vote this week, on Aug. 29, the Sarasota County Commission will hold a public hearing on a draft ordinance that could put two proposed Sarasota County Charter amendments on the ballot that relate to the commission’s May 2016 vacation of a 357-foot-long segment of North Beach Road.
However, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh said on July 10 that he would be prepared to talk at length, during the public hearing, about the potential ramifications of the measures, if they are approved by the voters during the Nov. 6 General Election.
After Siesta Key resident Michael Cosentino filed a complaint against the county in June 2016, alleging that the board violated its Comprehensive Plan in approving the road vacation on a 4-1 vote, he also began a petition drive on the two Charter amendments. His goal not only was to reverse the road vacation approved on May 11, 2016, but also to ensure that no County Commission ever again would be able to vacate or sell road segments on rights of way along waterways.
Cosentino also established a nonprofit organization, Reopen Beach Road, to pursue his case for the overturning of the County Commission action two years ago.
He submitted his first batch of signed petitions to the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office on July 20, 2016, a spokeswoman told The Sarasota News Leader.
On June 25, Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner wrote formal letters to Commission Chair Nancy Detert, informing her that Cosentino had obtained the necessary number of valid signatures, under the aegis of the County Charter, to have the amendments put on the ballot.
As Cosentino wrote them, the amendments are as follows:
- “Article III, Section 4.1. Preserve County-Owned Parks, Preserves, Beach and Water Access and Waterfront Vistas. The County shall not sell, and shall retain ownership of, County-owned Parks and Preserves, and shall not vacate or sell County-owned road segments or right of way along or abutting any beach, river, creek, canal, lake, bay, gulf access or waterfront vista. The County shall encourage maximum right of way use for public access and viewing of waterfront vistas. Whenever feasible, the County shall make these areas accessible to mobility impaired persons.”
- “Article III, Section 4.2. Siesta Key Beach Road as Public Right of Way.The County shall rescind the vacation of, or re-acquire, Beach Road on Siesta Key as it existed on January 1, 2016, and shall not vacate or sell this County-owned road segment(s) or right of way. The County shall provide maximum right of way use of Beach Road for public access, including vehicular use and viewing of waterfront vistas. The County shall make Beach Road accessible to mobility impaired persons.”
Cosentino needed 13,866 valid voter signatures to get the proposed amendments on the ballot. That number reflected 5% of the voters registered for the last general election prior to the start of his initiative, a Supervisor of Elections Office spokeswoman explained to the News Leader.
In one letter to the commission, Turner wrote that Cosentino had gathered a total of 14,727 valid signatures on the proposed amendment that calls for the county to retain or reacquire the vacated segment of Beach Road.
In a separate June 25 letter, Turner notified Chair Nancy Detert that Cosentino had secured a total of 14,862 valid signatures on petitions for the other proposed Charter amendment.
Some discussion needed
The scheduling of the public hearing on the draft ordinance regarding the petitions was on the County Commission’s July 10 Consent Agenda of routine business items. Detert pulled that item and another one, which calls for a Charter amendment that would require each county commissioner to be elected by qualified voters only in the district in which the commission candidate resides. The current election method requires each commissioner to live in the district he or she represents, but all county voters are able to cast ballots in every commission race.
“It just didn’t seem fair to let them go through under the Consent Agenda without comment,” Detert said of the proposed Charter amendments. She wanted to “red-flag these items,” she said, so voters will know to look for them on the ballot, in addition to all the candidates — “from governor down” — and a number of proposed amendments to the Florida Constitution.
She pointed out that one of Cosentino’s proposed amendments could have an impact on county ownership of parks and preserves, while the other deals with the reacquisition of the vacated part of North Beach Road. “So I would caution voters to make sure you read [those].”
“The [Nov. 6] ballot is going to be so long,” she continued, “[voters] might want to ask for an absentee ballot, so that [they] can have time to read each and every important item that’s going to be on [the] ballot.”
Commissioner Charles Hines thanked her for pulling the items.
Addressing voters, he added, “Take your time; read these. If you don’t understand them, get some help …”
He noted that, at first glance, the proposed state constitutional amendments on the ballot may appear fine, but “when you really dig into [them],” they could have different consequences — if approved — than voters perceive upon that initial reading.
Referring to the Sarasota County Charter, Hines said, “This is our constitution … how we conduct business.”
All the proposed Charter amendments were listed on the Consent Agenda as items placed there by the Office of the County Attorney, Detert noted. That indicated to her, she added, that County Attorney DeMarsh had reviewed them to make sure they are appropriate.
“Do you see any landmines in either of these two items?” she asked him, referring both to the Cosentino amendments and the Charter change proposed by the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE). She pointed out that it would be the responsibility of the board members to “write rules” to implement the changes in the Charter, if the ballot measures are approved in November.
DeMarsh responded that one of Cosentino’s proposed amendments would place “limitations on the board’s authority to vacate rights of way. There may be some problems in implementing those if they were adopted by the voters.”
However, he continued, “The appropriate time to deal with those issues would be after the election,” instead of prior to the election, “in my opinion.”
For a number of months, Cosentino appeared routinely before the County Commission during the Open to the Publicportion of meetings, and he often told the board that he would overturn the May 11, 2016 vote on North Beach Road.
On one of those occasions, following his remarks, DeMarsh responded to a commissioner’s question about whether the road vacation could be reversed. DeMarsh advised the board members that that was not possible, given the guidelines that govern such commission actions.
DeMarsh indicated on July 10 that it would be advisable for him to discuss the applicable issues during the Aug. 29 public hearing on the ordinance related to putting the Cosentino amendments on the ballot. “I’d be prepared to do so. … I think that’s a good idea.”
Yet, he noted, such discussion could occur at another time, if the commissioners wished.
Adjustments to meet the law
Additionally, in a July 10 memo to the board, DeMarsh wrote that neither ballot summary for the Cosentino amendments comports with the requirements of the Florida State Statutes or case law. “Ballot summaries must be an explanatory statement, not more than 75 words, and state the chief purpose of the measure,” he pointed out in the memo. “The ballot summaries received with the petitions are verbatim recitations of the charter amendments,” he continued, “which has been found to be inconsistent with [state law],” because they do not “inform the voter what changes are being effected by an affirmative vote.
“Therefore,” he wrote, “substitute ballot summaries … appear in the proposed ordinance.”
One ballot title change also was necessary, he noted in the memo.
As provided in the draft ordinance, the ballot summaries are as follows:
- “Question One: Charter Amendment to reacquire and retain Siesta Key Beach Road as public right of way. The County vacated an approximately 224-foot-long portion of Beach Road on Siesta Key in 2016, which had been closed for some time. The vacated portion of Beach Road is accessible by all means, including pedestrian, but not including motorized vehicles. Shall the Charter be amended to require the County to reacquire this portion of Beach Road, and reopen it for vehicular traffic, as well as never vacate it in the future?”
- “Question Two: Charter Amendment to Preserve County-Owned Parks, Preserves, Beach and Water Access and Waterfront Vistas. Presently, the Board of County Commissioners, as provided by general law, has the authority to sell any County-owned property and to vacate roads and rights of way. Shall the Charter be amended to prohibit the County from selling or giving away County-owned parks and preserves, and to prevent the County from vacating any road segments or rights of way abutting any beach, river, creek, canal, lake, bay, gulf access or waterfront vista?”
“We will implement the will of the voters,” Detert said during the July 10 discussion. Still, she reiterated her earlier point: “I want to make sure that [voters] have all the proper information before they vote, so they know what they’re voting for. … Often, there’s unintended consequences that people had no knowledge of before they voted.”