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Proposal to end single-member districts aims to silence voters

Herald-Tribune | Page A08

Tuesday, 1 March 2022

Your Turn Muslima Lewis Guest columnist

In November 2018, nearly 116,000 Sarasota County citizens voted to change our county charter to require commissioners to run for election in individual districts, not at-large and countywide.

The winning argument: Residents of each of the five districts deserve to have their voices heard and their interests represented when county policy is made.

The citizens backing single-member districts made up 60% of the vote; they represented a strong majority that supported a democratic principle. But now the five members of the Sarasota County Commission have decided that what citizens want doesn’t matter – so the commissioners have called a March 8 referendum to overturn the will of voters and abolish district elections.

Regardless of your political leanings, you should vote 'No' on County Charter Referendum #2 if you believe in representative government.

The commissioners know that – unlike what happened in November 2018 – only a small fraction of voters will participate in the March election. And they know that If they target their political allies and spend a lot of money on propaganda, a small number of voters could overturn what a wide majority of voters decided less than four years ago.

The commissioners who are undermining representative government are Michael Moran, Christian Ziegler, Nancy Detert, Alan Maio and Ron Cutsinger. Since they don’t respect the decisions of county voters, maybe citizens should hold them accountable and vote them out of office the next time they run.

Why don’t these incumbents want to face their neighbors in single-member districts? Because they want to exclude as much competition as possible.

Running countywide requires more campaign cash than running in one district. As a result, many qualified, would-be candidates in the five individual districts would be locked out of the process because they could not afford to compete countywide. A return to countywide elections could erect numerous barriers for residents who offer grassroots solutions to their individual district’s issues.

I believe that politicians who are elected countywide are more likely to do the bidding of the deep-pocketed developers who fund their campaigns. There is already rampant overdevelopment taking place in Sarasota County, and it is robbing our communities of green space and compromising our quality of life. We need a process that provides a fair opportunity for local voices to be heard, not a process that favors those with the richest donors.

The campaign to get rid of single-member districts is being backed by Sun Coast Alliance, a political action committee with an address in a Tallahassee lobbyist’s office. Sun Coast has unleashed a flood of misinformation – in the form of mailers, TV ads and other resources – that is targeting county households.

For example, the first measure on the March 8 ballot is one that asks voters to renew a funding source for the Sarasota County school district. However, Sun Coast’s propaganda is actively trying to trick voters into voting 'Yes' for both supporting schools and eliminating single-member districts.

Don’t be fooled.

Who is behind Sun Coast? The latest campaign finance reports show that since 2018, the political action committee has raised more than $310,000 from 11 donors, nine of which are other political action committees with the exact same address. In short, these organizations are being used to funnel cash to select causes around Florida.

One of the largest donations comes from a group named Serious Conservatives; according to state contributions data, Serious Conservatives operates as a 501(c)(4) organization – which means that it doesn’t have to reveal its donors. Another contributor to Sun Coast is Benderson Development Inc. of Buffalo, New York, a major real estate operator in Sarasota County and the one developer to leave fingerprints on this attempt to undermine the democratic process. Don’t let that happen in our county.

Early voting has already begun and Election Day is March 8. Stand up for the will of local voters. Vote 'No' on County Charter Referendum #2.

Muslima Lewis is an attorney and voting rights advocate who resides in Sarasota County.

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