Voters reject Charter Review Board amendment calling for more changes to citizen-initiated petition process

Amendment prohibiting proposed Charter changes in conflict with Charter wins passage

Although members of the public decried the ballot questions, the Sarasota County Commission in July voted unanimously to place on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot two amendments that the county’s separately elected Charter Review Board had approved in October 2020.

As Commissioner Nancy Detert characterized the action following a July 12 public hearing, “This is not our ordinance. … If people don’t like what’s on the ballot,” she continued, “they can just vote ‘No.’ ”

As it turns out, 51.35% of the 187,291 voters who cast ballots on one of the measures this week did vote “No.”

That proposal called for the following:

  • At least 10% of the total number of registered voters in each of the five County Commission districts, as of the last election, would have to sign a petition in favor of placing an amendment to the Sarasota County Charter on the ballot before the measure could go before voters.
  • A petition form provided by the county would have to be used. That would include, at a minimum, the proposed language of the Charter amendment, the ballot title and the ballot question.
  • Any proposed Charter amendment would have to undergo a county review for legal sufficiency after the Supervisor of Elections Office had validated that signatures of 1% of the registered voters in the county in the last general election had been gathered on petitions. If legal deficiencies were found, they would be conveyed to the sponsor of the petition.
  • A fiscal impact statement of no more than 75 words, prepared by county staff, would have to accompany any citizen-initiated Charter amendment. That would have to be written after 1% of registered voters’ signatures were obtained by the sponsor. Then, the petition form would be revised to include that fiscal impact statement, so subsequent signers would have the opportunity to read it.
  • The sponsor of a petition would have to appear before the Charter Review Board to explain the measure.

When the Charter Review Board members conducted their own public hearing on the proposed amendments — on Oct. 14, 2020 — Lourdes Ramirez of Siesta Key, president of the largest Republican Club in the county, stressed, “Republicans are supposed to be about limited government, deregulation and lower taxes. Yet, time and time again, I see supposedly Republican officials increase the size of government, add regulations that impact citizens’ rights, and add another layer of bureaucracy that comes with a taxpayer cost.”

All of the Charter Review Board members were Republicans, Ramirez pointed out.

“These proposed changes today add extra layers of regulations and bureaucracy on citizens’ rights to access their own Charter,” she continued.

However, the unofficial election results show that 63.94% of the 188,850 citizens who cast ballots on the second proposal during the 2022 General Election voted “Yes.”

That amendment says that any new proposed amendment to the Charter “shall not be in conflict with the Florida Constitution, general law, or the Charter.”

During the July 12 public hearing before the County Commission, Bill Van Allen, North County vice chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Sarasota County, called that second amendment “ludicrous on its face,” because any proposal to modify the Charter would conflict with the existing language of the Charter.

When the Charter Review Board members debated the amendments before approving them in 2020, much of the focus regarding that second amendment was put on two amendments that Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino had written in response to the County Commission’s 2016 vacation of a 373-foot-long segment of North Beach Road, starting at the Columbus Boulevard intersection near Siesta Village.

Voters passed both of Cosentino’s amendments in the 2018 General Election, which resulted in litigation over them.

In October 2019, a 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge ruled that all of one amendment was invalid because it conflicted with state law. That amendment called for the County Commission to rescind the road vacation or reacquire the property.

Circuit Judge Hunter Carroll also called the first sentence of the second amendment — which sought to prevent future vacations of road segments with so much as a “waterfront vista” — invalid, as well, for the same reason. He characterized it as aspirational.

Yet, Carroll pointed out that the second sentence could stand alone, as they encouraged county leaders to “maximize rights-of-way for public access and viewing waterfront vistas.” The third sentence of that amendment, he added, required such areas “to be made accessible to mobility-impaired persons whenever feasible.”

After Cosentino appealed the decision to Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal, a three-judge panel affirmed the Circuit Court judge’s opinion.

In his ruling, Carroll further explained, “In considering a legal challenge to charter amendments such as these, courts presume the amendments to be valid and reasonably construe them to be valid, if possible. If, however, an amendment is unconstitutional, courts must strike the offending amendment even though it means the will of the majority of the electors who voted on the issue cannot be carried out. That is the situation here. The Court does not take this step lightly.”