For more than 90 minutes Wednesday night, residents stood before the Sarasota County Charter Review Board and argued the merits of single-member districts.
About 80% of the evening’s 45 speakers were in favor of the districts and asked board members to keep the districts in place. However, board members pushed a decision to its next board meeting to comply with procedural bylaws.
Board members were reviewing single-member districts at the request of the Sarasota County Commission, members of whom wanted to discuss the potential of reverting to a system where county residents cast at-large ballots for commissioners.
Commissioners in April asked the Charter Review Board to review the voting system and consider a repeal for the ballot. Commissioners can at any time approve an ordinance to place an amendment on the ballot.
Commissioners argued that residents didn’t realize what they were voting on in 2018 when they approved the referendum, which requires voters to cast a ballot only for the commissioner in their district.
“I’ve yet to have somebody come up to me and say, ‘You know, I’m pretty glad and absolutely delighted that I gave up my right to vote for four commissioners,’” Chair Al Maio said. “I’m still waiting for that person, and I’m never going to meet them.”
However, speaking in a shortened two-minute time frame instead of the usual five-minute allotment, most residents argued the single-member district idea is better.
Resident Valerie Buchand argued that the commissioners' attempt to revert to the old system sends a message that they don’t care about the voter’s will.
“Here we are again to undo what the voters have chosen for their life,” Buchand said. “My question to you is, how long will it last? The voters have decided for a single-member district. We wouldn’t have had to go that route if we had been represented at the table … but the people they represent is developers in their special interest.”
Attorney Dan Lobeck argued that nearly no other Florida counties that are the size of Sarasota County have countywide elections. Additionally, he said countywide elections increase the cost of running, which restricts access to office.
“Single-member districts make sense. It empowers the people,” Lobeck said. “You’re having contempt for the people if you put this back on the ballot.”
A small number of residents did speak against single-member districts, arguing that the system allows voters to have less of a voice. Jack Brill, the Sarasota Republican Party chair, said the change meant voters lost 80% of their voice when it comes to the county commission.
“This is the worst form of voter suppression possible,” Brill said. “…It is not only the right decision to put on the ballot the option to repeal single member districts, but it will also allow democracy to be in action for all Sarasota County voters.”
After listening to the arguments, charter review board members were mixed in their reactions.
Board member David Samuel said the ballot in 2018 was too busy, which left room for confusion.
“The will of the people, certainly it's very important,” Samuel said. “But also, the people need to know what they’re voting for. They need to be educated.”
Although not all board members shared their opinion on the matter, they unanimously agreed to move forward a discussion. However, citing bylaws that dictate how the board operates, board members agreed to put the debate off until its next meeting.
A discussion and debate of single-member districts is set for the Charter Review Board’s Oct. 20 agenda.