THE CASE FOR SINGLE MEMBER DISTRICTS
Updated: Jan 30
An open letter from Dan Lobeck. Bolded bits are in the original.
There is an important special election for all Sarasota County voters on March 8, 2022, and before that by absentee ballots and early voting.
The ballot asks you for two votes. One is on an extension of an extra local tax to help our schools.
The second was added by the Sarasota County Commission. It’s a Charter Amendment to repeal single member district election of County Commissioners, approved by 60% of the voters by initiative and referendum in 2018. Instead, if it passes, all Commissioners will be elected Countywide.
This is to urge that you vote NO on the second ballot issue, the Charter Amendment.
Why is this proposed, when the elected Charter Review Board refused to put it on the ballot, and Commissioner Nancy Detert initially said it should be left alone?
One word: Developers.
Developers love Countywide elections because it costs five times as much for a Commission candidate to reach the voters than in a single member district. That advantages the candidates who the Developers hand-pick and bankroll in each election, and then control once they take office.
The development interests freaked out in 2020 when a principled, conservative Republican candidate almost won a squeaker of a primary against the Developer-owned incumbent Mike Moran. So they got their Commissioners to put repeal on the ballot.
In 2018, the Development interests spent over $150,000 in a failed effort to defeat single member districts. Their ads incredibly claimed that single member districts give the Developers more power. Expect to see that argument again this time.
Think about it: if single member districts favor the Developers, why on earth do they (and their agents in local politics and public office) so passionately want them repealed?
They want to go back to expensive Countywide elections to maintain their stranglehold on County Commission elections and policies. It makes sense that they would invest tens of thousands of dollars in an election for a return on investment in pro-Developer votes worth millions once their candidate is elected.
Sure, Developers continue to spend a lot of money in single member district elections. The point is not that their spending is reduced. The point is that a principled, grassroots candidate has a shot at beating the Developer candidate by spending only 20% as much to reach the voters, and by neighborhood influence, door-to-door campaigning and other less expensive means than in a Countywide vote.
Now the main theme this time from the Developers and their allies is that you should vote yes on the Charter amendment to get back your right to vote for all five Commissioners.
Realize though that what you would get back is a very weak vote, in which voters throughout the entire County will drown out your choice for a Commissioner from your area. With Countywide elections, each County Commissioner will still be required to live in one of five districts, but the people of that district will be stripped of the right to choose who represents them.
Neighborhoods are empowered by single-member districts. Each neighborhood has five times the influence in electing its district Commissioner, rather than having their influence diluted by all of the voters throughout the county. Needing their votes, rather than being able to rely on the big developer dollars in an expensive countywide campaign, each candidate will come and cater to the neighborhood and its leaders, both before the election and after taking office.
Again, with single member districts, you have a much better shot at getting a Commissioner who will truly be responsive to you and your neighbors as their constituents, rather than their contributors who gave them the big bucks needed to win Countywide.
Multiply that effect in all five districts and we can get a County Commission that acts for a change to make Developers build around nature rather than over it, protects our neighborhoods and traffic mobility and makes growth pay its own way.
If we had single-member districts for a few elections, we might have Commissioners who are more responsive to the people in their district and the public interest generally, for example protecting Siesta Key from the traffic of Mega-Hotels, and for the benefit of each other part of the county.
That issue is also framed as single member districts "disenfranchising" a voter from voting for all five Commissioners. Are you disenfranchised because you vote for the one State Senator in your District -- Joe Gruters -- but not the other 39 State Senators as well? If single member districts suit the State Senate or House of Representatives (which fits four of its districts all or partly in our County), then perhaps it is also suitable for a County as large as Sarasota County to have single member districts as well.
If you’re a Republican, you also may get a flyer saying that election by single member districts is nothing more than a scheme by radical Democrats to get one Sarasota district in which they have a 50/50 chance of electing one Commissioner. Again, nonsense. It’s not about partisan politics, it’s about power politics. Almost every Republican precinct voted for single member districts as a bipartisan reform in 2018. Many local Republican activists now support it. I for one have been a conservative Republican my whole life, beginning with working for Barry Goldwater at the age of 13. I was founding president of the Sarasota County Young Republicans, vice president and acting president of the Siesta Key Republican Club, as well as other leadership positions.
The thing is, I am also a refugee from Ft. Lauderdale. Like you, I moved here for a better quality of life. I’m tired of a County Commission controlled by Developers to serve their interests rather than those of the rest of us.
I just happen to believe from experience that from the beginning of time, everywhere in the world, the main thing wrong with government has been its successful capture by those who would use government to serve their ends contrary to the interests of the rest of us.
We must prove that elective office is not for sale. We must convince the public that elected officials are what James Madison intended us to be, agents of the sovereign people, not the hired hands of rich givers.
-- Barry Goldwater
Sarasota County is simply too big for Countywide elections. Not only does it make it too
costly to campaign without the Big Developer Dollars, once elected it is difficult for Commissioners to keep in touch with their constituents.
That is why of the 14 counties with populations as big as Sarasota County (as well as the next three below us) only four elect their County Commissioners Countywide. The rest have only single-member districts or mostly single member districts.
Single member district election of Sarasota County Commissioners is gaining even more support than in 2018. New endorsements have come from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the local and state League of Women Voters and the Siesta Key Condominium Council, among others who did not take a position before, urging a NO vote on the March 8 Charter amendment.
The question is now coming down to whether informed voters turn out and carry the day. Please vote NO on the Charter amendment to repeal single member districts, on your mail ballot or at the polls on or before March 8.
-- Dan Lobeck, Esq.