Number of required voter signatures on petitions would double and all organizers would have to submit all petitions at one time within three-month window
All eight speakers during an Aug. 29 public hearing argued against changes the Sarasota County Commission has proposed for the section of the county Charter that governs citizen-initiated petition drives.
Nonetheless — with the addition of a tweak first suggested by Commissioner Paul Caragiulo — the board members voted unanimously to put the proposed changes before the voters on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot.
If citizens approve them, the board’s amendments would do the following:
- Raise the voter signature threshold from 5% to 10% for the number needed to get a citizen-initiated, proposed Charter amendment on the ballot.
- Limit the period for collecting those signatures to two years.
- Require organizers of a petition drive to turn in all their petitions at one time to the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office between Jan. 1 and April 1 of the General Election year in which the amendment would appear on the ballot.
- Require that all citizen-initiated referenda appear on General Election ballots. No more special elections would be conducted. That change would apply to any Charter amendments proposed by the Sarasota County Charter Review Board, as well, if the commission’s amendments win voter approval in November.
During the board’s June budget discussions, Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner acknowledged that the expense of a special election is about $400,000.
“Ultimately,” Pat Rounds of Sarasota told the board on Aug. 29, “voters decide for or against [citizen-initiated Charter] referendums at election time. Does the County Commission want to deny county voters that option?”
She added that “raising the bar to 10%” for the signature threshold would prevent issues from reaching “the ballot box.”
Siesta Key resident Michael Cosentino, who worked with volunteers to get two proposed amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot, told the board members, “I had people all over this county helping me, and we busted our butts for two years. … It’s an absolute nightmare,” he added, even to get 5% of the voters’ signatures during that period of time.
Mike Shalsko of Venice pointed out that it would be “virtually impossible” to collect all the necessary signatures within the time frame provided for in the amended language.
“This may be the most important vote this County Commission takes,” Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck said. “This is an attempt to squash the people from having the right to put Charter amendments on the ballot. That’s astonishing. That’s offensive.”
After Chair Nancy Detert closed the public hearing, Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out, “We’re not taking anything away from anybody by what we vote on today. … If you all disagree [with the proposed amendments], then just say, ‘No’ [on Election Day].”
“The intent of this is [for] local citizens that are incredibly passionate about a topic [to] take their time and their energy and their passion” to get a measure on the ballot, Commissioner Michael Moran said in making the motion to place the board’s proposed amendments before voters on Nov. 6. “[People] stand out in the beating sun, as someone mentioned [during the hearing],” he continued. “They gather stacks of petitions. … They plop [them] on the desk [at the Supervisor of Elections Office] and [then the measure is] put before the voters of this community to see if everyone else agrees, and that is not subject to any party affiliation.”
“This is notwhat is going on here,” Moran added.
During the board discussion before the Aug. 29 vote, Moran and Commissioner Alan Maio both made it clear that they oppose petition drives that pay workers to gather signatures.
“What is really going on here,” Moran said, is the hiring of people from “Washington, D.C., and Nevada and California … [who], in an incredibly small amount of time, get a lot of signatures … I don’t think that’s appropriate.
“I think what we’re trying to do is clean up some of the Charter things that maybe have been too loose,” Detert said. “What we’re voting on is going out to the general population — which is a much larger crowd than this — and seeing what they think.”
Approximately 60 people were in the Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota on Aug. 29 for the discussion.
The solitary tweak
The issue that did prompt one tweak to the proposed amendments regarded the ability for organizers of petition drives to “cure” the situation — as Hines put it — when the supervisor of elections determines that an insufficient number of valid voter signatures has been obtained to get a citizen-initiated measure on the ballot.
County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh finally proposed an additional sentence in the section of the Charter that would be amended, to ease board members’ concerns on that point. The sentence would read, “Additional signature petitions may be submitted to the supervisor of elections no later than May 1 of the year of the general election.”
The supervisor of elections could communicate with the organizers of a drive after the process of validating the signatures begins, DeMarsh explained. “They can have that communication going on, and additional signatures can come in.”
“I think it’s more equitable, if you will,” Commissioner Caragiulo responded.
“I just think that [the stance of] ‘You’ve got to get it right the first time; otherwise you’re out,’ is a little draconian,” Caragiulo told DeMarsh.
When that statement drew loud applause in the chambers, Chair Detert admonished the audience about the board’s rules of civility.
Nonetheless, Hines said, “I clearly believe there’s a problem with regards to an unending length of time that a petition signature can remain alive to be considered.”
The ‘cure’ concern
When Caragiulo first raised the issue this week about giving organizers an opportunity to submit more signatures if necessary, DeMarsh responded that he had not changed that portion of the proposed ordinance since he went over it with the commissioners in early July. “Now you’ve had more time to think about [the language],” DeMarsh added.
“The other thing we’re shooting for,” Detert pointed out, “is accuracy, because in a protracted amount of time, you can’t guarantee that those people are still alive and still live here.”
The fact that under the current Charter guidelines, “you can carry a signed petition around for almost forever is wrong, and we’ve got to fix that,” Commissioner Hines said. “But I think we need to tweak [this language] a little bit.”
“Frankly, I think it’s too easy now [to get a citizen-initiated Charter amendment on the ballot],” Caragiulo told his colleagues. “There’s definitely something to a higher percentage [of signatures],” he continued, “because voter turnout’s increasing.”
Still, he questioned the lack of time to turn in additional petitions if the percentage threshold had not been met.
“I agree with Commissioner Caragiulo,” Hines said. “There really almost needs to be an opportunity to ‘cure.’”
If the organizers of a petition drive were short 200 or 500 valid signatures, for example, Hines continued, perhaps it would be reasonable to allow them an extra 15 or 30 days to try to gather enough additional voter signatures to make up that difference.
“Well, I certainly would accept direction from you as to any changes,” DeMarsh responded. However, he added, he would think the proponents of a Charter amendment would submit more than the number of signed petitions that they needed, “to take care of the risk.”
If the voters approved the board’s Charter amendments as proposed, Commissioner Maio said, and he were an organizer of a petition drive, “I would certainly put in a lot of extra [ones].”
However, Caragiulo asked, how many extra petitions would an organizer need to submit to ensure the number of valid signatures met the threshold?
Maio responded that Caragiulo was “making very good points.” Yet, Maio continued, he was worried about the potential for people to rely too much on the ability to submit extra petitions. “Just construct something that prevents that sort of playing with the rules,” Maio told Caragiulo.
“What is a reasonable, maximum amount of time,” Maio asked, for the supervisor of elections to be able to certify all the signatures and then be able to get the proposed amendment on a ballot?
DeMarsh suggested that if the board kept the window from Jan. 1 to April 1 for organizers to submit all their petitions at one time, an additional month could be allowed for the organizers to supplement petitions if the number of valid voter signatures were determined to be insufficient.
“That’s kind of where I’m going,” Hines responded. If organizers prove to be 18,000 short, he continued, that is a matter of “Come on! Wake up!” However, if they are 500 short, they have “a pretty good chance [of making up the difference], and there’s an urgency there.”