Sarasota County’s Charter Review Board last week advanced a pair of amendments to the county’s charter that critics say will make it harder for citizen-led petitions to appear on a ballot.
Although the amendments were approved by the charter review board with a 6-0 vote — four members were absent — they must now go before the county commission for approval to be placed on the November 2022 general election ballot.
The two amendments address what aspects of the charter, which acts as a constitution for local governments, are allowed to be changed and the process by which residents can bring forward a citizen-initiated petition.
The new amendments, if eventually approved by voters, would require:
- Signatures from 10% of registered voters in each of the county’s five commission districts on an citizen-initiated charter amendment;
- Any proposed amendment must not be in conflict with general law, Florida Constitution or the county charter;
- Proposed amendments must be judged by the county for legal sufficiency and fiscal impacts; and
- The sponsor of the amendment must appear before the Charter Review Board to explain the proposal and answer any questions.
The proposed changes come after county residents approved a pair of amendments related to charter revisions during the 2018 election.
Those amendments increased the number of required signatures on a citizen-initiated petition to 10% of all registered voters countywide, an increase from the previously required 5%. The county also established a two-year time limit for petitioners to gather the required signatures.
District 2 board member Donna Barcomb said the new amendments were designed to help better educate the public ahead of election day.
She said in past elections, particularly the 2018 general election, voters have not been well-informed about amendments on the ballot. In 2018, three citizen-initiated amendments were introduced, one of which resulted in a change to single-member districts for County Commission elections.
That year, voters also approved two charter amendments related to the county’s vacation of Beach Road, both of which were partially or totally invalidated by a judge in 2019.
“My concern is that I want people to be educated about the amendments,” Barcomb said. “It wasn’t meant to be something that would be something that would deter somebody from having a petition. I just think the process needs to be cleaned.”
However, critics say the changes would make it harder for the public to get involved with efforts to revise the charter.
Resident Lourdes Ramirez said the changes to the charter would add extra layers of regulations and bureaucracy on citizens rights, making it more difficult for Sarasota County citizens to access their own charter.
“Our charter has existed for almost 50 years — 50 years of citizens having the right to create our own laws,” Ramirez said. “Now the proposed changes want to eliminate citizens’ voices and home rule.”
A date for the County Commission to discuss the amendments has not yet been decided.