A group of advocates has begun a campaign to put a new Sarasota city charter up for consideration during November’s election, which, if approved, would establish an elected mayor as the executive of the municipal government.
It’s Time Sarasota is a political committee chaired by Linda Holland, the president of the Gillespie Park Neighborhood Association. The group is advocating for a new city charter that would create an elected-mayor position, sometimes referred to as a “strong mayor,” to oversee the city. Another significant change would establish a city council with five districts, rather than the three districts that currently send representatives to the City Commission.
The group has posted the full text of its proposed charter online at itstimesarasota.com. Now, it’s preparing to gather roughly 3,500 signatures by June to place a charter referendum on the November ballot.
The proposal is, at least partially, not a new idea: The city’s voters have rejected three elected-mayor referendums dating back to 1996. Opponents of the proposal have used these elections — the last of which saw the referendum defeated by a roughly two-to-one margin in 2009 — as evidence Sarasota citizens are not interested in that form of government.
Molly Cardamone, a former Sarasota mayor, is a longstanding opponent of the elected-mayor position. She said a council-manager form of government is used in most cities of Sarasota’s size — and in most municipal governments in the area. Wary of the power that would be granted to a “strong mayor,” she said the change could produce a less-qualified executive.
“A four-year elected mayor with no special education or professional experience in the management of the city our size is just ludicrous,” Cardamone said. “Who is trained to do that unless you are a professional?”
Supporters of this proposal say some circumstances make this push different. Holland pointed out that fewer than 7,000 people voted on the 2009 referendum, held in March, whereas proposed amendments in the November 2012 general election got almost 20,000 votes. She believes a general election referendum would better reflect the true beliefs of Sarasota residents.
“How many times have we had city elections with such a pathetic percentage of turnout?” Holland said. “We need all of the city voters to come out and have their say, not just a small amount.”
Messaging, too, will be emphasized differently for this campaign. Previous efforts have been characterized as an elite few forcing something onto the city, which Holland believes is inaccurate. She said voters had to see that a variety of people support these efforts; Holland said the initial planning meetings of roughly 20 people contained a diversity of perspectives.
“We have to get not just one or two spokespersons,” Holland said. “We have to get a lot of people out there saying, ‘Yes, it’s time.’”
Cardamone criticized the most recent proposal on the grounds that a small group of people wrote it and that if it is placed on the ballot, it might not be revised by anyone outside of the group that put it together. She said recent Charter Review Committee meetings, held in 2006 and 2010-11, provided a proper public venue to dig into a proposal of this nature.
“This is a community that has many, many public hearings on many, many issues,” Cardamone said. “This could go to the voters without a single public hearing.”
This proposed charter dates back to the 2012 efforts of Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, who suggested the City Commission put a similar referendum on the ballot. After that failed, Caragiulo worked with Robert Martineau, professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, who composed an entirely new charter in plainer language. The group of citizens Holland is now leading revised that document to produce the proposed charter.
Caragiulo argued that the proposed charter, with five districts electing council members, would create a more representative government than the current system. He said Sarasota was a diverse city with a diverse set of interests, and that capturing all of those voices would become increasingly difficult with the status quo.
Caragiulo said he would support the referendum, but that his contribution to the new push for a revamped charter more or less ended there. His main priority, he said, is allowing a larger proportion of the electorate to voice their opinion on the matter.
Even if it fails in November, he said those fatigued by elected-mayor initiatives should prepare themselves for the possibility of those efforts continuing.
“If it minimally fails, you might adjust the structure and come back again,” Caragiulo said. “This is part of government. This is part of the deal.”
Contact David Conway at [email protected]