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County advances effort to repeal single-member districts

In March, voters will decide whether to maintain the current electoral system or return to a process in which all five commission races are countywide.

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  • | 9:30 a.m. December 8, 2021
The citizen-led campaign to create single-member districts got a charter amendment on the ballot that drew support from 59.8% of voters. File photo
The citizen-led campaign to create single-member districts got a charter amendment on the ballot that drew support from 59.8% of voters. File photo
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Less than four years after nearly 60% of voters supported a change to a single-member district system for Sarasota County Commission races, county elected officials want to see if the public has changed its mind.

The County Commission voted 5-0 on Tuesday to authorize a special election in March seeking to repeal single-member districts. The referendum would eliminate the voting process for county elections, in which each of the five commission districts elects a single representative to the board. Instead, voters countywide would be allowed to participate in all five commission elections, the system in place prior to the 2018 adoption of single-member districts.

The measure would appear on the March 8 ballot alongside a referendum on the continuation of the 1-mill property tax for the Sarasota County School District. If approved, the changes would take place before the 2022 general election, ensuring 2020 was the only year in which the county held single-member district elections.

The commission’s vote came after more than an hour of public testimony that was nearly unanimously in support of single-member districts. Speakers highlighted the support the initiative received in the 2018 general election, when 59.8% of voters approved a charter amendment creating single-member districts.

Members of the public questioned why the County Commission was interested in repealing a system that recently won an endorsement from such a broad segment of the electorate, particularly considering a 2021 county survey showed only 26% of respondents felt negatively about single-member districts. 

“The people voted,” resident Susan Hicks said. “The vote was taken. I don’t understand why we’re here.”

Proponents of single-member districts reiterated their reasons for supporting the system, stating their belief that limiting county elections to the residents of a single district created stronger incentives for representatives to be responsive to their constituents. Although county commissioners argued that single-member districts restricted the electoral power of residents by only allowing them to vote in one race, some speakers rejected that argument, stating they preferred to cast a single vote for a district representative than to cast five votes for five countywide seats.

“I’m in north county, and I’m not really feeling the loss of being able to figure out who’s running in North Port,” resident Margaret Smith said.

At previous meetings, some commissioners characterized the push for single-member districts as politically motivated. The 2018 charter amendment drew support from the Sarasota County Democratic Party, which said the system would improve the odds of electing a Democrat to the County Commission for the first time since 1966. Speakers at Tuesday’s meeting accused the all-Republican County Commission of acting politically, moving to repeal single-member districts out of a desire to protect incumbents and maintain Republican dominance of the board.

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger, elected in 2020 following the adoption of single-member districts, pushed back against accusations officials were acting disingenuously in their effort to change the county’s electoral process.

Cutsinger said the commission legitimately believed single-member districts was a flawed system, and that a change would be in the best interests of the county. He also said the commission was not acting unilaterally to discard single-member districts, noting voters still had the power to preserve the current system by voting again in support of the measure. 

“I don’t see it here we’re overturning this,” Cutsinger said. “We’re simply giving our county the chance to confirm or change their mind if they wish by voting for or against this.”

Commissioner Mike Moran, a vocal critic of single-member districts, reiterated his desire to continue pushing for the elimination of the system until he succeeded in his efforts.

“I’ll do whatever I can with the power I have that all residents will be able to vote for all commissioners at every election,” Moran said


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