Two Siesta Key organizations urging citizens to keep Single-Member Districts in place by voting ‘No’ on March 8 Special Election ballot

Siesta Key Association asking its members’ views via survey

This is a graphic that the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections has been posting on social media and sending out via email blasts. Image courtesy SAFE

With vote-by-mail ballots already being filled out for the March 8 referendum on Single-Member Districts, two Siesta Key organizations are urging their members and supporters, respectively, to keep the voting system for Sarasota County commissioners in place.

Yet another nonprofit — the Siesta Key Association — has asked its members to participate in a survey to determine how the majority feels about the issue.

A fourth organization, the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, has taken no position on Single-Member Districts, Immediate Past Chair Steve Cavanaugh told The Sarasota News Leader on Feb. 16, based on his knowledge of the situation.

Finally, the leaders of the nonprofit established in 2021 to advocate for incorporation of the portion of the island within Sarasota County’s jurisdiction agreed not to take a stand. Tracy Jackson, a member of the board of Save Siesta Key, told the News Leaderon Feb. 10, “We all have our own feeling [about Single-Member Districts]. … Our mission is to incorporate the island, and we need to stay focused on that goal.”

In a Feb. 9 email blast to its members, the Siesta Key Condominium Council wrote that its board of directors is urging “all Siesta Key Voters to pay special attention to the March 8 Ballot,” on which the County Commission has placed a question seeking the repeal of Single-Member Districts.

Since the Sarasota County Charter amendment won approval of nearly 60% of county voters in the November 2018 General Election, the commissioners have argued that it is “bad governance,” saying voters lost 80% of their representation on the board.

Before the Charter amendment passed, commissioners were elected countywide, except for a two-year period in the early 1990s, when Single-Member Districts also was in effect. With the voting method in place in 2020, a citizen could cast a ballot only for a commission candidate who lived in the same district as the citizen.

During a County Commission discussion on Nov. 15, 2021, Commissioner Michael Moran emphasized that citizens “could go six to eight years and never be able to vote for even the one person,” because of Single-Member Districts. He was referring to the fact that the board twice has redrawn the commission districts since the November 2018 election.

Kindra Muntz addresses the Sarasota County Charter Review Board members on Oct. 20, 2021. File image

Kindra Muntz, president of the nonprofit Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections (SAFE) — which worked to get the Charter amendment before voters on the November 2018 ballot — has emphasized the great expense of countywide elections. In a statement she provided the News Leader in February 2021, Muntz pointed out that voters “of all political parties voted for [Single-Member Districts] 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.”

In its Feb. 9 email blast, the Condominium Council leaders offered another quote from Muntz: “Your power is in electing your own county commissioners, and that is why we must have single-member districts. It’s about your district, your vote and your power.”

The Council leaders also emphasized in that email, “To vote to preserve single-member districts YOU MUST VOTE NO” on the question the commissioners placed on the March 8 ballot. The Council directors called the design of the ballot question a “[c]lever attempt by your [Sarasota County] Commissioners to catch unwary voters thinking a yes vote is correct.”

Further, the Council leaders told their members that information about the March 8 election could be found on the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office website:

Not quite a week after the Condominium Council alerted its members about the special election, the Siesta Key Coalition on Feb. 15 issued its own statement.

“The Board of the Siesta Key Coalition believes that the Single Member District electoral system should be left in place for the upcoming 2022 election to determine the effectiveness of this approach. A ‘NO’ vote will retain Single Member Districts. A ‘YES’ vote will return the district to At-Large election of Commissioners.

“We recommend a ‘NO’ vote on this issue,” the statement added, with emphasis.

“Mid-term referendums have a historically low voter turn-out, which could affect the outcome,” the Coalition directors added.

“We urge you to vote!” they wrote with further emphasis.

The Coalition was established in the spring of 2021 to fight hotels proposed for Siesta Key whose designs exceeded the construction limitations contained in the island’s zoning regulations for property zoned Commercial General.

Additionally, both the Coalition and the Condominium Council offered reminders about the fact that citizens may vote by mail. Requests for those ballots must be made by Feb. 26, the Coalition pointed out.

Early voting also will be available from Feb. 26 through March 6 at several locations, the Coalition added in its statement.

No stance taken yet by Siesta Key Association directors

As for the Siesta Key Association (SKA): During that nonprofit’s regular meeting on Feb. 3, Dr. Stephen Lexow, a member of the Save Siesta Key board, asked President Catherine Luckner whether the SKA’s directors would be taking a stand on Single-Member Districts.

“Our board has not met to make that kind of statement,” Luckner replied, explaining that the organization tries to avoid becoming engaged in political issues.

This is the Siesta Key Association survey regarding Single-Member Districts. Image courtesy SKA

(The SKA is registered as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. Ballotpedia explains that such entities “are also known as ‘social welfare organizations.’” It adds, “A key provision of ‘social welfare’ is that the organization’s purposes must be intended to benefit a community or the public at large, not a private group.”) (Nonetheless, Ballotpedia says, a 501(c)(4) “can engage in some political activity … in support of or in opposition to candidates for office,” but it cannot give donations directly to a candidate for office or a candidate’s committee.)

Luckner then told Lexow that all of the SKA directors have agreed that, with Single-Member Districts having been in effect for only one election cycle so far, since November 2018, not enough information exists about the effects of the measure. Moreover, she said, “I have no interest in changing the will of the vast majority of voters [in 2018].”

The other referendum on March 8

Along with the County Commission referendum, voters will be asked on the March 8 ballot whether they wish to continue, for four more years, a special 1-mill tax that voters initially approved in 2002 for the Sarasota County School Board. As noted on the school district’s website, the funds pay for a wide variety of programs that the School Board otherwise could not afford.

The tax generated $71.6 million for those programs this school year, representing about 15.7% of the total district’s budget, the website notes.

This is a Republican Party of Sarasota County guide on voting in the March 8 Special Election. Image from the party website

In years past, Sarasota County Republicans opposed the School District’s decision to hold the tax referendum in March, citing low voter turnout, as well. They called for the question to be put to citizens during a general election, arguing that taxpayers should not have to pick up the expense of a special election in the spring.

However, this year, the party has endorsed the renewal of the school tax.

Bridget Ziegler, wife of Sarasota County Commissioner Christian Ziegler, has been a member of the School Board since former Gov. Rick Scott appointed her to fill out an unexpired term in 2014. Bridget Ziegler won her initial election to the School Board in November 2014 and was re-elected in 2018.

Christian Ziegler is vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida.

These are facts about the School Board referendum on the March 8 ballot. Image courtesy Sarasota County School District

In March 2018, only 62,934 voters cast ballots in the School Board tax referendum, Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office records show. At the time, the number of registered voters was 308,031; thus, the turnout represented slightly less than one-fifth of the number of voters.

The citizens who approved renewal of the school tax accounted for 78.63% of those who cast ballots in that special election, Supervisor of Elections Office records note.