A petition is circulating to change the way Sarasota County elects its commissioners.
The Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections is working to change County Commission seats from at-large representation to single-district.
Currently, voters elect commissioners without district boundaries. SAFE wants to change that to a system in which voters within districts elect representatives from within that geographic area. One of the group's biggest objections to at-large voting is the cost to run a countywide campaign.
“I’ve been involved in county issues since the mid-'80s, and I have never seen a situation where the big money interest, the developers in particular, have so dominated and controlled county elections through the immense amount of money they throw to campaigns,” said SAFE member and Sarasota lawyer Dan Lobeck.
SAFE President Kindra Muntz agreed that changing the way the elections are run will allow more people to participate.
Further, she said, single-member districts would empower voters and allow for representatives who are attuned to the needs of each area.
“Sarasota County has grown,” she said. “We want people to be served — people to be heard.”
A successful effort in 1992 brought single-district voting to the county elections, but it was changed back to at-large elections two years later, Muntz said.
The petition needs 15,096 verified signatures to get on the December 2018 ballot. Currently, Muntz said, the organization only has a few thousand. However, she hopes to begin reaching out to organizations and groups around the county to ask for their support.
One such group is Newtown Alive, which encouraged Newtown residents to sign the petition in an October newsletter.
“Newtown needs a stronger advocate as its District 1 Sarasota County commissioner,” the newsletter stated.
A small group of Newtown residents sued the city of Sarasota in 1979 to change city commission elections to a single-district vote. The plaintiffs argued that the at-large elections diluted the voices of black voters, and the city switched to single-district elections in the 1980s.
Commissioner Mike Moran, the current representative for District 1, which encompasses Newtown, called the petition a “political maneuver designed to try and create an unbalanced advantage.” He said voting on single-member districts will limit voters’ input on all five of the commissioners, who make decisions that affect the lives of residents across the county.
“I feel the fairest system is to allow ALL (sic) Sarasota County residents the ability to vote for ALL (sic) County Commissioners,” Moran said in an email.
Muntz said the petition is not about furthering a political agenda.
“This is not a partisan thing. This is for every voter, every community,” she said. “They would know who they’re electing. They would know who represents them.”
For more information or to sign the petition, visit the organization's website.