Organizations urging voters to keep Single-Member Districts and special 1-mill school district tax
Depending upon a voter’s views, casting a ballot during the March 8 Special Election in Sarasota County could demand even greater attention to detail than usual.
This week, Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner and his staff released a sample ballot for that election.
At the top of the form, voters are asked whether they want to approve the Sarasota County School District’s special 1 mill tax for another four years, beginning July 1 and continuing through June 30, 2026.
Then, on the lower half of the page, the Sarasota County Commission asks voters whether they wish to repeal the Single-Member Districts county Charter amendment that close to 60% of voters approved during the November 2018 General Election.
The commissioners have remained united and adamant that the measure must be overturned. It allows citizens to vote only for commission candidates who live in the same district where they live.
Previously — except for a two-year period in the early 1990s, when a similar Charter amendment was in effect — County Commission candidates were elected countywide.
Following the November 2020 General Election, when three of the district seats were up for votes, the commissioners began contending that the system disenfranchises voters.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler pointed out on Nov. 17, 2020, that, with the passage of the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment, “What’s happened here [is that it] basically, immediately removed 80% of the responsibility [of the commissioners to act on behalf of all county residents], and it also removed 80% of the accountability [of county commissioners to constituents].”
“There’s so many people who don’t understand Single-Member Districts,” Ziegler stressed. “We should let the public know what really goes on with ’em.”
“I think, as time goes on,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said, [Single-Member Districts is] just bad government, because you become territorial.”
Chair Alan Maio has stressed that voters did not understand what the question portended when they addressed it on the 2018 ballot.
During an April 2021 discussion, Maio pointed out that, after he tells constituents how Single-Member Districts functions, “Not one of those people walks away very happy. They are upset. … I’m still waiting for that [one] person [to say he or she is happy about the election system], and I’m never going to meet that person, ’cause they can’t possibly be happy” about having a single vote for representation on the County Commission.
During a February 2021 discussion, Detert referred to the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment as “the road to hell, frankly, for lack of a better word.”
Commissioner Michael Moran added that he could “go on for hours” about his opposition to Single-Member Districts.
In April 2021, the commissioners launched an effort to persuade the county’s separately elected Charter Review Board to put a measure on a ballot in an effort to achieve the repeal of the Single-Member Districts amendment.
However, the members of that board agreed unanimously in October 2021 that they would not consider it.
Even before the Charter Review Board decision was made, Commissioner Detert had asked that a question be placed on the county’s 2021 Citizen Opinion Survey in an effort to determine respondents’ view of the Charter amendment.
A plurality of the 1,250 individuals whose opinions were reflected in the survey results approved of Single-Member Districts. Only 26% of the respondents disagreed with the change in how commissioners are elected, a member of the team that handled the survey told the board members in late September 2021.
Nonetheless, the county commissioners pursued their own initiative to overturn the 2018 decision. They finally voted on Dec. 7, 2021 to conduct the March 8 referendum.
Kindra Muntz, president of the nonprofit organization that advocated for the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment — Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE) — has provided comments to The Sarasota News Leader, pointing out, “One big winner in the 2020 elections was single member districts for electing county commissioners.” She noted that “60% of voters of all political parties voted for this in 2018 to allow good candidates in each district to compete to represent their district, to reduce the cost of running by 80%, and to be able to hold their elected officials accountable.”
Muntz also pointed out, “Strong candidates of both major political parties emerged because of single member districts.”
Muntz already has been engaged in a campaign to encourage citizens to vote for Single-Member Districts in March.
In her latest email blast, sent out on Jan. 18, Muntz wrote, “Here’s the challenge we face on the March 8 ballot:
“We need to VOTE YES for the School District Referendum, and VOTE NO on the Sarasota County Charter Amendment.”
She added, “We can do this — IF we can Get Out the Vote for the Critical March 8 election!”
“Please VOTE and tell all your friends to VOTE on March 8,” she wrote.
An organization called Citizens for District Power, which has a website and a Facebook page, also is urging voters to turn out in support of Single-Member Districts.
High up on the website homepage on Jan. 20, the organization says, with emphasis, “The Board of Sarasota County Commissioners has defied the voters of Sarasota County.
“The Board has decided to stage a March 8 Special Election aimed at overturning the Single Member District Voting structure that We the People overwhelmingly approved in 2018.”
Citizens for District Power urges voters to register to vote by Monday, Feb. 7, if they have not done so already, so they may participate in the March 8 referendum.
Additionally, the group reminds citizens that they need to request vote-by-mail ballots by 5 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 26. Those requests can be made through the Supervisor of Elections Office website.
Championing renewal of the school tax
Supporters of the Sarasota County Schools’ tax also began a big push this week for voters to keep in place the funding that originally won approval in 2002.
On Jan. 20, an organization called Citizens for Better Schools sent out a flyer with frequently asked questions (FAQs) about how the revenue from that tax is used.
“The mill provides essential funding that gives students additional educational opportunities,” the flyer points out. For example, the flyer says, the school district would add a full-day educational program for 4-year-olds “at key elementary schools to jump-start learning. Additionally, the mill will bring back the Summer Learning Institute to prevent the summer learning slide,” the flyer notes.
“The funds have helped the district expand science, technology, engineering, and math courses and improve career and technical education programs,” the flyer continues. “The mill also supports the district’s nationally recognized visual and performing arts programs. It has also provided critical funding needed to maintain excellence in instruction and improve student achievement.”
Further, the flyer notes, “Money from the mill supports an additional 30 minutes in the school day, equivalent to one extra year of instruction over a K-12 education. The extra time is an essential part of the district’s ability to improve student achievement.”
The 1-mill tax provides approximately $71 million for the district’s operating budget — about 13% of the total revenue, the flyer points out. “That comes to approximately $1,600 per student,” it says.
One mill represents $1 per every $1,000 in taxable property value. For example, district leaders note, the owner of a home valued at $250,000 would pay $250 a year to support district initiatives.
If the referendum fails, the flyer explains, “Many of the programs that make Sarasota County one of the top three highest-performing school districts in the state will be reduced or discontinued.”
Accessing the sample ballot
Supervisor of Elections Turner and his staff point out that voters may access the sample ballot for March 8 in English and Spanish by visiting SarasotaVotes.gov and clicking on the “March 8 Sample Ballot” link under “Important News” in a box on the left side of the homepage.
“For March 8, there are two ballot questions and no candidate races,” said Turner in a news release. “I encourage everyone to take a moment to familiarize themselves with the sample ballot prior to voting.”
Voters who have questions or need assistance may call 941-861-8619 or visit the elections website, the release added.