Commissioners maintain the voting system is ‘bad governance’
On Nov. 16, the Sarasota County commissioners made clear their intention that a new referendum on the Single-Member Districts voting system — which won approval in November 2018 — would be on a March 8, 2022 special election ballot.
On Dec. 7, more than a few of the 28 speakers during the necessary public hearing on those plans conceded that, in spite of their opposition to the board’s plan, the commissioners would vote to conduct that referendum.
At the conclusion of the hour-and-45-minute hearing, that is exactly what the commissioners did. It took only about 9 minutes after Chair Alan Maio closed the hearing for
Commissioner Michael Moran to make the motion, for Commissioner Christian Ziegler to second it, and for those two board members, plus Commissioner Ron Cutsinger, to discuss their positions.
The ballot question that voters will see on March 8 will say, “Shall each member of the Board of County Commissioners be elected county-wide, thereby allowing voters to vote for all five County Commissioners as each office comes up for election, rather than voters only being able to elect a single County Commissioner from the district in which the voter resides as presently exists in Article II, Section 2.1A of the Sarasota County Charter?”
County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht explained that, after commissioners in November suggested tweaks to the original ballot language that the Office of the County Attorney had proposed, the question had been revised.
The repeal effort will be on the ballot with the latest Sarasota County School Board referendum seeking a four-year extension of a special 1-mill tax that provides revenue for programs that the school district otherwise could not afford.
Among the Dec. 7 speakers, Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck told the commissioners, “Let me suggest you’re making a serious strategic error by putting this on the March ballot …”
Typically, Lobeck continued, turnout for March elections is lower than it is for the general elections in November.
Moreover, many voters in the county are angry — including people on Siesta Key, Lobeck pointed out, after the majority of the commissioners approved two high-rise hotels for the island following hearings on Oct. 27 and Nov. 2.
The recent groundswell of approval for Single-Member Districts “out-shadows the support we got [before the 2018 General Election],” he added.
In November 2018, nearly 60% of the voters approved the amendment that modified the election of county commissioners.
Like many of the speakers before him that afternoon, Lobeck also stressed, “Sarasota County has grown too big for countywide elections.” Of the 14 counties with larger populations than Sarasota County, he noted, and the three below Sarasota County, in regard to size, only four still use countywide elections for their commissions.
“What’s scaring you all,” Lobeck said, “is the Republican primaries.”
Lobeck pointed out that Republican Mike Hutchinson, who lives in the eastern part of the county, narrowly lost to Commissioner Moran during the 2020 Republican Primary for the District 1 seat, with Single-Member Districts voting in effect.
Countywide commission elections, Lobeck added, will enable the “continued domination of our politics and policies by the developer cabal.” Having contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the candidates they want to see win, through political action committees (PACs), Lobeck continued, developers such as Pat Neal of Neal Communities, Randy Benderson of Benderson Development and Carlos Beruff of Medallion Home “can reap millions in the return on that investment.”
Reiterating their positions
After making the motion for the March 8, 2022 referendum, Moran first stated, as he has during past discussions of Single-Member Districts, that the outcome of that referendum will have no effect on him, Maio or Commissioner Nancy Detert, because all of them are term-limited.
The reason the commission is pursuing another referendum, Moran continued, is “just a truly steeped feeling that this is just bad governance.” He was referring to the Single-Member Districts voting system.
Moran added, “I didn’t hear any testimony or evidence [during the hearing that day] that over 250,000 citizens and voters in this county, in this next election, will not be able to vote.”
During the 2020 election, with Single-Member Districts in effect, voters cast ballots for commissioners in Districts 1, 3 and 5. The District 2 and 4 seats will be on the ballot in 2022.
“The disenfranchisement of those voters is just absolutely unacceptable to me,” Moran said, referring to those living in the other three districts in 2022. “I will do whatever I can, with the power I have,” to ensure that every citizen has the opportunity to vote for every commissioner, he added.
In seconding Moran’s motion, Commissioner Ziegler said he did not know why members of the public are worried about another referendum on Single-Member Districts, if they believe the majority of voters support the system.
Ziegler concurred with Moran’s assertion that the voting method constitutes bad governance. Every Sarasota County citizen should have the opportunity to “hire or fire” every county commissioner, Ziegler added.
Further, he continued, he believes that the longer Single-Member Districts remains in effect, the more parochial board members will become, working just for issues in their districts instead of considering issues in the context of countywide ramifications.
Commissioner Cutsinger — who was elected in November 2020 to the District 5 seat, via the Single-Member District system — stressed, “Frankly, it’s a little bit disconcerting that we can’t be believed that we genuinely believe [that allowing countywide elections of commissioners] is the right thing for governance.”
Cutsinger also noted that when the Single-Member Districts system originally won voter approval in 1992, 53% of voters supported it. Then, in 1994, he continued, 64% of voters cast ballots to eliminate it. “They thought better of it in ’94. … We are simply allowing individuals to vote as to their preference here. … We’re allowing our constituents to make the choice, and that is what democracy is all about.”
During the Dec. 7 hearing, Kindra Muntz, president of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections — SAFE — which worked to get the initiative on the November 2018 ballot — urged the board members to at least allow voters in Districts 2 and 4 to participate in Single-Member Districts voting in 2022. In 2020, the voting system led to what Muntz characterized as “healthy competition” for the board.
If the commissioners were to repeal the Charter amendment through the March 8, 2022 referendum, she continued, that would “truly [be] anti-Democracy.”
With countywide elections, Muntz pointed out, “It’s about impossible to have real competition, because only the well-funded [candidates] can really run a countywide campaign successfully,” and those candidates usually have developers’ support, she indicated.
Referring again to citizens in Districts 2 and 4, Kindra urged the commissioners, “Give ’em a chance. … See how it goes. … See if it brings out healthy competition.”
Pat Rounds of Sarasota, a founder of the Citizens for District Power organization who served for a year as secretary of the SAFE board, opened her remarks with a question: “How did we get to a place where elected officials stubbornly defy the voters’ will?”
She pointed out that the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment won approval in November 2018 despite the commissioners’ opposition to it and “despite the efforts of a well-funded business and real estate PAC.”
“Several days after three of you were elected by [Single-Member Districts] a year ago,” she continued, “you began to undermine voter confidence, claiming voters were confused by the  ballot language. Sixty percent of your constituents don’t understand simple English?”
Johannes Werner told the board members that he wanted to start his remarks with an apology: “I’m sorry democracy failed you.”
Werner said he voted for Single-Member Districts “because I did not feel represented. My neighbors did not feel represented.” Having lived in the county “since the last Millennium, he continued, “I cannot remember seeing a county commissioner anywhere geographically near where I live.”
Louise S. Machinist of Sarasota pointed out to the board members that even presidents of Republican clubs in the county have “called you out” for trying to overturn the results of the November 2018 referendum. In fact, she added, “Even the Sarasota Magazine, for heaven’s sake, is against what you’re doing. When do they ever get political?”
Then she referenced Commissioner Moran’s repeated use of “sly” in recent months to describe the advocates of Single-Member Districts. “Are you referring to sly Pat Rounds, sly Kindra Muntz, maybe sly Bill Zoller?” Machinist asked. (Zoller also is a member of Citizens for District Power; he has generations of family ties to the county, he has told the News Leader.)
Machinist added, “I’m here today to implore you all to use different words, more respectful words, when you’re addressing the citizens who come here, not just today, but every day. My hopes for that are not high, because every single commission meeting that I’ve attended in the last several years, some of you have spoken disdainfully, arrogantly and sometimes even deceitfully to the citizens who petition you. … Your behavior toward the voters, in my opinion, … is deplorable.”
The very first speaker — Arlene Levy of Longboat Key — said, “The arrogance of the Sarasota County commissioners is appalling.” The results of the 2018 referendum on Single-Member Districts, she added, “should be proof of what the public wants. Your effort to thwart that vote shows the lack of respect for those whom you are supposed to represent.”
Levy noted that she taught history and civics for 35 years at the high school level. “You are an elected body who is blatantly ignoring the will of the people.”
Mike Cosentino of Siesta Key noted that the event that afternoon had been advertised as a public hearing. However, he said, “This is just another one of your skits where you pretend to have a public hearing and then just do what you’re going to do anyway.”
Susan Hicks of Sarasota described the result of the 2018 referendum as “Democracy has spoken.” Why, then, she asked, were the commissioners using taxpayers’ money and time to schedule another referendum? “Did you not like the answer [in 2018]? … Who are you beholden to?”
In a countywide election, Hicks added, “Big-money candidates win … Who can afford to [send mailers] to 350,000 [voters]? … Nobody with any real humanity, with any real life; only people who take money to do what money wants.”
Monica Balicki of North Port told the commissioners that while Sarasota County is “beautiful on the outside,” it is “morally and ethically rotting on the inside.”
“Rather than listen to the will of the people whom you represent — not own — you are going to play a referendum game with us, and seemingly out of desperation,” she added.
She wanted to inform the board members, Balicki continued, that “voting is not a game. Democracy is not a game. The will of the people is no longer a game.”
The solitary speaker to support the plans for the new referendum was Maryellin Kirkwood of Sarasota.
“People change their minds,” she said. “I expect you to protect our right to change our minds.”
Then she explained that she worked 10-hour days in 2018 at an information station for an early voting site in the county. “People were exhausted by the ballot in 2018,” Kirkwood continued. “The No. 1 question,” she added, “was on all of the state constitutional amendments. By the time people got down to Single-Member Districts, they’d had it.”
With passage of that voting method, Kirkwood said, “People lost the ability to appeal to and to petition all five commissioners for any concern or any issue …” If she has a problem, she added, “I want to be able to go to all five …”