Sarasota County voters reject idea of returning to countywide election of commissioners
Anne Snabes, Herald Tribune 3.8.2022
The Sarasota County electorate reaffirmed its support for electing county commissioners through single-member districts in a referendum Tuesday.
In 2018, nearly 60% of Sarasota County voters approved single-member districts – a system in which county commissioners are elected solely by the citizens of their district – in a county charter referendum. Commissioners were previously chosen through countywide elections.
The current county commissioners have said they thought voters didn't understand what they were voting on in 2018, so they decided last year to schedule another referendum, hoping to reverse the earlier decision.
But 57.2% of voters opposed the charter amendment that commissioners had proposed, while 42.8% voted for it, according to unofficial results tallied Tuesday night by the Supervisor of Elections office.
"It's just wonderful," said Kindra Muntz, the president of Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, an organization that advocated for single-member districts. "I feel so grateful that all the people of the county worked together. People of all political parties stood up; we actually defeated what the commissioners were trying to take away from us."
The referendum results are the third indication in the last four years that that there is more support for single-member districts in Sarasota County than opposition to it. Besides the 2018 vote, Sarasota County's 2021 Citizen Opinion Survey asked county residents to rate, on a scale of one to five, how they feel about the fact that the county changed from countywide elections to single-member districts. The survey found 26% of the respondents disapproved of the change, while 40% approved of it.
The results of Tuesday’s referendum mean that the County Commission elections this fall – District 2 and District 4 – will be held using single-member districts method.
How this referendum came about
The county commissioners have long opposed single-member districts. They say that the system prevents residents from voting for four out of five commissioners.
Last April, board Chairman Alan Maio sent a letter to the chair of the Sarasota County Charter Review Board, asking the panel to “review the impacts” of single-member districts, which had been place for over two years. But the Charter Review Board decided in an October meeting not to challenge the system.
The next month, the County Commission selected a map for their revised district boundary lines. The commissioners did not choose a controversial map that would have made it easier for District 2 Commissioner Christian Ziegler to be re-elected – they selected another map instead.
But earlier that day, Nov. 15, the commissioners indicated that they wanted to hold another referendum on single-member districts. Commissioner Mike Moran said a very small group of “sly Democrats” pushed for single-member districts in 2018 to try to make one of the commission seats Democratic.
“I’m supportive of putting this on the ballot until a majority of the Sarasota residents realize what these sly Democrats did to the voting process here in Sarasota County,” Moran said.
The commission voted on Dec. 7 to hold a referendum on single-member districts this March.
Commissioners respond to the news
Moran told the Herald-Tribune that he felt it’s important for all five County Commissioners to be held accountable to all the voters in the county.
“But the voters spoke and I respect the result,” he said in an email.
Sarasota County has retracted single-member districts before. Moran noted that county residents voted for single-member districts in 1992, and then rejected it in 1994.
“I was hopeful it would be the same result in 2022,” he said, “but clearly we are in a different political environment.”
Moran said he remains committed to accountable government for Sarasota County residents, no matter what form it takes.
Commissioner Nancy Detert said she doesn’t think single-member districts will work out the way people predict it will.
She said that some county residents voted against the charter amendment because they oppose the development currently taking place in the county.
But she believes it would have been more beneficial for them to be able to vote for all five commissioners. Under single-member districts, they could elect a slow-growth commissioner, but that representative would only be one vote on the commission.
“I think people have looked at the micro picture,” she said. “I’m looking at the macro.”
Detert said that the current County Commission will continue representing the county as a whole.
“We are going to keep doing our jobs the way we think we should,” she said.
The other three county commissioners couldn’t be reached for comment by press time.
Single-member districts leader rejoices
Muntz, the president of Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, said she thinks that Sarasota County residents realize that the referendum was “a deceptive effort, rushed effort by the commissioners to take away what the people voted for in 2018.”
Muntz thinks that growth and development was an important issue for voters in this referendum. She said people often don’t know what they can do about the rapid growth in the county.
“People see it happening all around, but they don’t know how to deal with it,” she said. “They don’t know how to make a difference. It makes a difference to vote.”
Republican and Democratic parties react to the news
The Republican Party of Sarasota County supported countywide voting in the referendum.
"The voters have spoken, and we always respect the will of the voters, " said Jack Brill, the acting chairman of the local Republican Party.
Brill said his party will now start focusing on the School Board election in August.
The Sarasota County Democratic Party supported single-member districts. JoAnne DeVries, chair of the local Democratic Party, said she was "absolutely delighted" that single-member districts were retained by voters.
"The other party was convinced that the voters were confused the first time around," she said. "Voters weren't confused."
An expensive campaign by a Tallahassee-based political committee promoted countywide voting for commissioners.
County voters also approved the renewal of an optional property tax for the Sarasota County School District on Tuesday, with 85% of voters supporting the referendum and 14.5% opposed, according to unofficial results.
Anne Snabes covers city and county government for the Herald-Tribune. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 941-228-3321 and follow her on Twitter at @a_snabes.