The single-member Sarasota County Commission district idea sounds good at first blush when the proponents give their pitch.
Proponents are generally good government types who want the right things. They hope for:
1) Better representation of the entire county,;
2) More responsiveness to constituents’ needs;
3) And less influence of money in the system.
But the change would probably work against the first two, and the third one is an unreachable fantasy. Money will always be part of politics.
As imperfect as any man-made system of governance is, the way the Sarasota County Commission is set up for elections and representation is probably as good as it gets.
Right now, the County Commission has five districts. Commissioners must live in the district for which they are run, but they must run countywide. So everyone in the county votes for each commissioner.
The single-member district concept, which the Sarasota County Charter Review Board voted recently to study, with an eye toward putting it to voters in a referendum, would retain the idea that candidates must live in the district in which they run, but would allow only voters in that district to vote for the candidate. The hope is that the commissioner would then be more responsive to the needs of constituents in that district.
The problem is that would just be all too true. A member of the commission from Sarasota would care only about Sarasota and not give a hoot about residents in Osprey, Venice, North Port or Englewood — or even a different part of Sarasota out of his or her district.
This would result in divisiveness in the county and an extraordinary amount of parochialism and vote-trading.
Let’s say, for instance, that the top three road projects needed this year, according to objective transportation metrics, were all in North Port and Venice. Under the current system, there is at least a chance that the top priorities would be funded because all of the commissioners voting on the road projects would be answering to voters in North Port and Venice.
Under the single-member district, there wouldn’t be a snowball’s chance on a hot August afternoon that all of those projects would be done in North Port and Venice. You would have the north county commissioners demanding their share of the road-building money; there would be horse-trading on projects; and the decisions would be 100% politicized.
Why would the commissioner representing Siesta Key vote for something benefitting only Lido Key or North Sarasota if those were not in the commissioner’s district? He or she probably wouldn’t, unless there was a quid pro quo, because they simply don’t have to answer to those voters.
To try to gain an advantage, the south county commissioners might create an informal alliance, as might the north county commissioners — each looking for three votes. The end of this plan would be a divided county, pitting geographic areas against each other.
One of the speakers at the Charter Review Board meeting said she did not know which county commissioner to call for constituent needs and thought a single-member district would solve that.
It actually could make it worse. All she needs to do now is call the commissioner who lives in her district. But in addition, she can call any of the other commissioners because they all answer to her as a voter. In a single-member district setup, she would lose that leverage and their first question would be: where do you live?
Now we would not want a system of all at-large commissioners, with no districts at all. We could get all five commissioners from Sarasota and have no representation in the south, or theoretically vice-versa.
What is in place now, where commissioners answer countywide but must come from all areas of the county, seems like the best balance possible.
Let’s not spend time trying to fix what is not broken.
Rod Thomson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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