Sarasota County voters to decide on Nov. 6 whether to change method of electing county commissioners

Instead of every voter casting a ballot for every seat up for election, voters in each of the five districts would elect just the commissioner from their districts

Dan Lobeck. File photo

Representing the board of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE), Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck has made the case to the Sarasota County Commission that changing the method of electing the commissioners will serve constituents better and encourage more people to run for the seats.

Lobeck addressed the commissioners on Aug. 29 — the day after the primary elections for two commission seats. He explained why SAFE and its supporters would like to see each voter in each of the five board districts cast a ballot just for a candidate who would represent the voter’s district. His comments came during a public hearing on whether the SAFE proposal for single-member districts could go before the voters.

The commissioners had voted on July 10 to set the public hearing for formal adoption of the ordinance necessary to place the measure on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot. At the time, Chair Nancy Detert called SAFE’s proposal “a radical change to how you elect your county commissioners.”

With assurance from County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh on Aug. 29 that his staff had found nothing problematic about the proposed amendment to the Sarasota County Charter, the commissioners voted unanimously to give voters the opportunity to choose whether to change the election method.

Detert was not present for the hearing, having left earlier in the afternoon.

Petition gatherers were able to gain more than the 15,096 signatures of registered voters needed to get the measure before the voters this fall. SAFE began its drive last year, submitting its first batch of petitions to the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office on April 26, 2017, Rachel Denton, communications manager for the office, told The Sarasota News Leader.

Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner officially informed the County Commission in a June 25 letter that the total number of valid signatures SAFE had obtained was 15,330.

In 1992, Lobeck pointed out on Aug. 29, the commissioners were elected from single-member districts. Because developers became unhappy with the situation, he continued, by 1994, the commission elections had reverted to the method of allowing every county voter to cast a ballot for every County Commission race.

These are the findings in the ordinance the County Commission adopted to put the SAFE amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Sarasota County has become too large, Lobeck said, to maintain the current election system. In 1992, he said, the county had 184,000 registered voters; today, the number is approximately 314,000. “That’s a lot of voters for a candidate for County Commission to reach. That’s a lot of voters for a county commissioner to seek to provide adequate constituent service to and to get to know the people in the district,” Lobeck added.

All but four of the 40 Florida counties that allow each voter to cast a ballot for each commission candidate “are smaller than Sarasota County,” he said. In fact, he noted, Sarasota County is the 14th largest county in the state in terms of population.

“Even more important” than giving the residents in each County Commission district the right to be able to remove their representative from the board, he continued, is the fact that “it costs too much money to run for County Commission countywide …”

For example, he said, if a candidate wanted to send a 6-inch by 9-inch mailer to each of the 314,355 voters, that would cost $126,000.

Lobeck also pointed to the Sarasota County Charter’s $200 limit for an individual to contribute to a candidate. Developers use their subsidiary businesses, he said, to give multiples of that $200 contribution to the people they want to see elected to the board. In addition, Lobeck noted, political action committees pay tens of thousands of dollars for “glossy flyers” for the candidates they support.

This is the section of the County Charter that includes the limit on campaign contributions. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“Single-member districts give grassroots candidates a fighting chance of being elected,” Lobeck said.

Yet another advantage of such districts, he continued, is that the number of signatures of registered voters a candidate would need to gather on petitions to qualify for a race — in lieu of paying a filing fee — would drop from 3,144 to approximately 629, if the number were divided by five. (The county has five commission districts.)

Candidates are required to obtain the signatures of 1% of the number of registered voters, he explained. That is why the filing fee for candidates this year was more than $5,000, he pointed out. With single-member districts, a candidate would need signatures of only 1% of the registered voters in the candidate’s district, he added.

Single-member districts also will lead to commissioners serving as advocates for their districts, Lobeck said. “They’ll all come to the table,” he added of the board members, “and the [greater] good will be done. That’s what I’ve seen with other single-member districts.”

Lobeck acknowledged that he already has heard opponents of the SAFE initiative say it is being pushed by county Democrats. He disputed that, noting that he is a lifelong Republican. “So this should not be [characterized as] a partisan effort.”

“The big money machine will stop at nothing to destroy something that will upend their advantage,” he added, referring to wealthy developers, as he indicated in other comments.

“Why would they keep … pouring tens of thousands [of dollars] into campaigns if they didn’t reap millions in return,” Lobeck said of developers, mentioning Pat Neal and Carlos Beruff as examples.

Kindra Muntz. Image from the SAFE website

Following Lobeck’s remarks, three other speakers urged the board to put the amendment on the ballot. Among them was Kindra Muntz of Venice, who serves as president of SAFE. “People are concerned with the amount of money that is overwhelming elections at every level,” she told the board. More candidates from all over the county would feel they had a chance to win a seat, she said, “if they didn’t have to spend a tremendous amount of money.”

Muntz added that many county residents have considerable expertise in a variety of issues. She believes, she said, that more of them would be inclined to run for County Commission if single-member districts were implemented.

Few board comments

The hearing on the SAFE Charter amendment began shortly after 5 p.m. on Aug. 29, after the conclusion of two more public hearings. Following the remarks of Lobeck and the other three speakers, Commissioner Alan Maio made the motion to adopt the ordinance proposed by SAFE, so the single-member district amendment would appear on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot.

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo seconded the motion.

“We said we would put this on the ballot,” Maio pointed out, alluding to the fact that SAFE had garnered the necessary number of registered voters’ signatures, as required by the county Charter, on citizen-initiated amendment petitions.

“I’ll support the motion,” Caragiulo said, though he noted his disagreement with the proposal for single-member districts. Still, Caragiulo pointed out, “This is the essence of democracy. This is exactly what’s supposed to happen,” he added, referring to the process set forth in the county Charter.

This is a section of the Single Member Districts website homepage. Image from https://singlememberdistricts.com

Before the vote, Caragiulo did have one question for County Attorney DeMarsh. If SAFE is successful on Nov. 6, Caragiulo asked, would the switch to single-member districts affect term limits for commissioners in any way?.

“I haven’t actually researched it,” DeMarsh replied, but he said he did not think it would.

Commissioners can serve for only two terms.

When Vice Chair Charles Hines called for the vote, it was 4-0.

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