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Sarasota County Commission
Sarasota Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018 1 year ago

County floats higher standards for amendments

In November, voters will consider a commission-initiated charter amendment that would create more stringent rules for citizen-initiated charter amendments.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

How many resident signatures should be needed before a proposed charter amendment receives ballot access? And for how long should those signatures be valid?

These are the questions voters will be asked in November after the County Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved a pair of referendums. The board crafted a charter amendment proposal in hopes of creating a more rigid process for getting citizen-initiated amendments onto the ballot.

Under the proposal, citizen campaigns would need to gather valid signatures from at least 10% of registered voters in the county, doubling the current standard of 5%. The current standards  require 15,748 signatures; the new ones would mandate 31,497.

The amendment would also limit the amount of time campaigns have to gather those signatures. Currently, the process is open-ended — a point of concern for commissioners who feared citizens could collect signatures for many years in pursuit of a charter amendment. The commission proposal would require the signatures be gathered within the span of one general election cycle, between November of one general election year and April of the next one.

The proposal drew the ire of several residents in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting who argued it wasn’t reasonable to ask campaigns to collect twice as many signatures over the span of less than two years. Representatives for groups including Reopen Beach Road, which successfully got two charter amendment proposals on November’s ballot, said it took more than two years to gather signatures from 5% of voters.

“The way I see this proposal is that it’s designed specifically to make it difficult, if not impossible, for citizens to come forward and propose a change to the charter,” said Mike Shlasko, a resident and former Charter Review Board candidate.

Members of the commission said the 10% standard was not out of character with other charter counties statewide. A chart prepared by county staff showed most counties require between 5% and 10% of voters to sign a petition before a proposal can get onto the ballot.

“I think it brings us in line with what other counties have concluded,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said.

Although some members of the public said they understood the desire to put a time limit on the validity of signatures or to require a higher threshold than the one currently established, they said the commission’s proposal was too harsh when considered as a whole.

“To many in this community, it appears our commission wants to prevent our citizens from exercising a power outlined in our charter,” resident Pat Rounds said.

The commission downplayed the significance of the referendum decision, as the proposed charter amendment must earn approval from a majority of voters before it goes into effect. The proposal would not affect the citizen-initiated referendums set to go before voters in November — two submitted by Reopen Beach Road, and a third that would create single-member districts for commission elections.

Commissioner Charles Hines described the amendment as one possible option for addressing an issue the board has identified. If voters reject it, the commission will know the public doesn’t think it’s an appropriate option.

“We’re just having the discussion,” Hines said.

Although Commissioner Paul Caragiulo expressed some misgivings about the amendment as initially presented, he was comfortable with the proposal after it was revised to give campaigns a one-month window to submit additional signatures if some of the original submissions were deemed invalid.

“It’s not perfect, not what I would have done as an individual, but that’s not how this works,” Caragiulo said. “I will leave this up to the electorate.”

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