Mysterious Tallahassee organization donates $100,000 to fight Sarasota’s single-member districts
Updated: Feb 19
Anne Snabes Sarasota Herald-Tribune 2.13.22
A Tallahassee-based PAC with a mysterious funding source is running a campaign to encourage Sarasota County voters to repeal single-member County Commission district representation in a referendum this March.
" . . . it’s ironic that a group that will not show its face is running a campaign saying that they want accountability” when they will not account for their $100,000 donation.
A mailer sent by Sun Coast Alliance to Sarasota voters in support of the extension of the schools tax and the repeal of single-member districts.
Sarasota County commissioners currently are elected solely by the citizens of the district in which they live – a system commonly called single-member districts – after county voters in 2018 overwhelmingly agreed to switch to that election method.
But Sun Coast Alliance, a Tallahassee-based political action committee, is pushing for this system to be replaced with one in which commissioners are elected by voters countywide.
The PAC’s views match those of the Sarasota County commissioners, who voted in December to hold a special county charter referendum in a bid to overturn that single-member district system. The referendum is on the ballot for the March 8 election, along with a question asking voters if they want to renew an optional property tax for schools.
Sun Coast Alliance has sent out mailers and made phone calls to residents encouraging them to vote yes on the two countywide referendum issues.
Campaign finance reports show that Sun Coast Alliance’s most recent donation – a sum of $100,000 – comes from a Tallahassee-based organization known as Serious Conservatives (C4). The Herald-Tribune was able to find little information about this organization.
Meanwhile, another campaign is ongoing to promote preservation of single-member district elections. The PAC running that campaign, Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, has received over 100 donations since Nov. 1, most of which come from individual residents.
Campaign finance reports show that Sun Coast Alliance received a $9,000 donation from Bradenton-based developer Benderson Development Co. LLC in June 2020.
Sun Coast Alliance has also received donations from several political committees. The most recent donation – of $100,000 – came from an organization called Serious Conservatives (C4) on Jan. 25, according to the state’s Campaign Finance Database.
The Herald-Tribune couldn’t find who has donated to Serious Conservatives (C4) by looking in the database, as searching the name led to no results.
It isn’t listed on the State of Florida’s Division of Corporations website, either.
There is, however, a PAC called Serious Conservatives, but it appears to be a different organization than Serious Conservatives (C4). The PAC hasn’t donated to Sun Coast Alliance, while Serious Conservatives (C4) has.
The chairperson of both the PAC and Sun Coast Alliance is William S. Jones, a political consultant who has operated many political committees in Florida and several other nonprofit organizations.
A complaint filed last year by a Washington, D.C., watchdog group alleged that two of Jones’ nonprofits violated federal tax laws by failing to disclose their substantial political contributions, the Gainesville Sun reported. Jones said at the time that the allegations amounted to a “political hit job.”
Sun Coast Alliance’s registered agent is Richard Coates, the president of Tallahassee-based Tidewater Consulting Incorporated. The company, according to its website, is “a full service firm, offering lobbying services, policy advocacy, and regulatory and administrative assistance.” Tidewater Consulting’s address is 115 E. Park Avenue, Suite 1, the same address as Sun Coast Alliance and the two Serious Conservative organizations.
An employee at Tidewater Consulting told a Herald-Tribune reporter that Coates was not in the office at the moment but that she would share the reporter’s contact information with him. The Herald-Tribune did not hear back from Coates by press time.
Sun Coast Alliance has sent mailers to Sarasota County voters telling them to vote “YES” in the referendum on whether to return to countywide elections for all five county commissioners.
One says in large letters: “RIGHT NOW, SARASOTA COUNTY COMMISSIONERS ONLY ANSWER TO A SMALL GROUP OF VOTERS.” It then says that on March 8, voters will have the chance to ensure that “ALL Sarasota County voters get to vote in local elections – making local politicians accountable to ALL voters.”
The other side of a mailer sent by Sun Coast Alliance to Sarasota County voters in support of the repeal of single-member districts.
Opponents of single-member districts argue that under the system, individual commissioners are not be accountable to all voters in the county, as they are only elected by voters in their district.
Proponents of the single-member district election method contend that it is commissioners who are elected countywide who are unaccountable. Because it takes more money to campaign countywide than in a defined district, interests including the building and development industry wield greater clout in a countywide election system, they argue.
Community activist R.N. Collins says that it is ironic that Sun Coast Alliance’s message centers around accountability.
“I think it’s ironic that a group that will not show its face is running a campaign saying that they want accountability” when they will not account for their $100,000 donation, he said.
In an interview with the Herald-Tribune, SAFE President Kindra Muntz called the March county referendum a “snap special election,” as commissioners only decided to put the question to voters in December. She said that turnout is typically low in special elections.
Muntz said that a person’s vote is more “powerful” under single-member districts.
“It means that people in each district can chose their commissioner,” she said, “and not have it chosen by people in 80% of the other districts all over the county.”
Another mailer shows a picture of a happy young girl with oversized yellow sunglasses. It tells voters to vote yes on both questions on the March ballot. It also says, “Two questions are on the ballot: one is good for our KIDS, and the other is good for our COMMUNITY.”
Jack Brill, the acting chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota County, said the party isn’t involved with Sun Coast Alliance.
“I don’t know the Sun Coast Alliance,” he said, adding that he’s not familiar with the PAC. “But I’m sure those are all people that have the same goal that we do.”
The Republican Party opposes single-member districts and is advocating for countywide voting by mailing voter guides to Republicans and posting information online.
A PAC known as Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections is encouraging local residents to vote “NO” on the county charter referendum. The organization sent a mailer to local educators that included a letter from a teacher at Phillippi Shores Elementary.
SAFE also sent mailers that could appeal to Republican voters, including one with former President Donald Trump’s image and the phrase “stop the STEAL,” used by Trump supporters after the 2020 election.
Sun Coast Alliance has sent its own mailers in response to SAFE’s mailers. They say, “Radical Elizabeth Warren supporters are using dirty tricks to fool Sarasota County Voters and continue to lie about President Trump.”
The county’s current single-member districts system was approved by nearly 60% of voters in the 2018 referendum.
Anne Snabes covers city and county government for the Herald-Tribune. You can contact her at email@example.com or (941) 228-3321 and follow her on Twitter at @a_snabes.