Whether they live in a ranch by the Myakka River or a condominium in downtown Sarasota, voters today elect the same representatives in county government. Sure, you technically have a representative for each of the five districts, but it means nobody’s particularly looking out for the needs of a heavily urbanized area or one far from the infrastructure of the cities. And unlike neighboring counties, including Manatee, that means each county commissioner, while they must adhere to residency requirements, deals with the same group of voters as the commissioner sitting next to them at the dais.

That creates certain benefits and drawbacks for the voters in this all at-large county. But a citizen petition effort for a switch to single-member districts may shrink the turf a candidate would have to work in order to be elected. Every Sarasota County voter has a say in the election of all five Sarasota County commissioners and so has that added voice when it comes time to call any member of the board. The same goes for all Sarasota County School Board, Charter Review Board and Public Hospital Board members. If the petition pushed by the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections [SAFE] were to make the ballot and win approval from voters, then every voter in the county would only have a say in one of the five Sarasota County commissioners.

The current system, among other things, means that even running for local office proves time-consuming and financially costly. Sarasota County Commissioner Mike Moran spent upwards of $102,000 to win a seat on the board in November, and County Commissioner Alan Maio in 2014 spent more than $125,000. To run for Sarasota County Commission means marketing oneself to more than 301,000 registered voters in the area, knocking on doors from North Port to Sarasota and from the shores of Siesta Key to the rural neighborhoods around the Myakka. 

A switch to single-member districts in Sarasota would mean only voters within a county commission district would vote on who represented them on the county commission, a move that potentially could create a more diverse board with officials representing only the specific needs of smaller constituencies. It would also greatly reduce the cost and effort required to run a competitive race. But at the same time, it would reduce the number of county officials beholden to any given voter by 80 percent, and critics of the measure question if an official making decisions on matters impacting voters throughout Sarasota County should answer only to a fifth of the voters.

SAFE Reform?

Leaders of SAFE for years have pushed for a switch to single-member districts, believing the move would reduce the reliance of candidates on large campaign donations. Michael Shlasko, an activist working with SAFE, says that requiring county commission candidates to appeal to a countywide constituency “makes it extremely difficult for candidates not backed by wealthy real estate developers to fund campaigns.” Shlasko boasts some personal insight on that. He ran in November for the charter review board, also a countywide office and one that garners almost no free media attention, but took just 42.6 percent of the vote. Like every Democrat running for charter review board, he went down in defeat.

The Alliance brought the matter to the Sarasota County Charter Review Board, most recently in 2013, but the board has not yet recommended the matter be placed on the ballot for consideration by county voters.

The issue at hand for the Alliance is the difficulty in running for office. While every Sarasota County Commissioner represents a particular geographic location and the county charter requires someone live in that area in order to run for county commission, at-large elections decide who holds each of the five seats on the board, meaning every voter in Sarasota County weighs in on all five offices.

In addition to making a political run a challenging ordeal, supporters of a switch note the Sarasota County Commission lacks diversity in its membership when it comes to political viewpoints. No Democrat has been elected to the county commission in nearly 47 years, for example. Only one black county commissioner ever won a seat on the board; Carolyn Mason served from 2008 through last November before term limits forced her retirement from the board.

Some members of the Charter Review Board in the county would like to see a change come to the system. “That’s why we delineate the number of Congressmen and Senators who represent voters, so rural and urban areas get a fair shake,” says Steven Fields, a member of the Charter Review Board since 2010. He doesn’t know if the board today would be more receptive to the move—there’s been substantial turnover since the last time the matter came before the board—but he sees little downside to having a county commissioner representing the needs of South County also representing the needs of voters who live south of Bee Ridge Road. “You can see problems in other locations—not necessarily Sarasota—where constituencies are overrun by voters living in one place,” he says.

Of course, voters in Venice and North Port have long complained that can happen here, where the centers of commerce for the region revolve around the City of Sarasota, and those interests often end up taking priority on the county agenda. JoAnne Devries, chairman of the Sarasota Democratic Party, says that while county commissioners typically deal with issues that lay outside party platform, the county commission would benefit from having a wider range of viewpoints represented at the dais. “There’s a lot of interest in this,” she says. And on the flip side of the north-south struggle in the local politic, she noted that despite the fact that the City of Sarasota’s voter registrations skew Democratic, a Democrat hasn’t represented the needs of the city in a county commission seat since the early ‘70s. “If elections were done by district, it might be a little easier for us,” DeVries says.


Cutting Voters Out

But many political leaders wonder if supposed outcomes like electing more Democrats or anti-growth politicians to public office reveals the true agenda behind the petition drive. Joe Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota, campaigned in November for voters to elect a full slate of Republican Charter Review Board candidates in part because he felt the Democratic slate explicitly aimed to push single-member districts. “We think all voters should have the right to vote in elections,” he says. A move to single-member districts would effectively disempower voters throughout the region, he says.

Jack Brill, vice chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota, says changing to a system where voters could only vote for one of their commissioners instead of all five would be a blow to the principle of representation. “All county commissioners should be equally vested in all of Sarasota County,” he says, “not just their own districts.” And with shifting populations, Brill notes that countywide votes are the only way to guarantee equal representation for all voters; lines get drawn based on decennial census numbers, but if one district sees substantial population growth (as North Port expects in the coming decade), then suddenly one commissioner can be representing a larger number of voters than another commissioner representing a less populous region.

Jody Hudgins, who was elected to the Charter Review Board in November, says there’s little evidence that county commissioners do ignore voters based on geography. He notes just in the past couple years, the Sarasota County Commission voted on opening negotiations for the Atlanta Braves to move spring training to North Port and the School Board spent the bulk of its new construction funding on facilities serving South Sarasota County. “You have to think of what’s good for the whole county as opposed to just this one district,” Hudgins says. And if the county commission were to start spending the bulk of its funding on one district disproportionately and to the detriment of other areas, the voters in the rest of the county could hold every official on the board accountable for that.

By having commissioners elected at-large, Hudgins says, commissioners must make a strong case for every decision that benefits a single part of the county. But the bottom line, in Hudgins opinion, remains that Sarasota County hasn’t been failed by at-large elections, so why change? “Look at the success of Sarasota County,” he says. “Look at how attractive a place we have to live. That’s partly because you cannot be a single-district issue candidate and be elected. You have to be for issues that benefit the whole county.”


Push for the Ballot?

For the moment, SAFE remains focused on the county commission and charter review board in its efforts for single-member districts. The Alliance right now is gathering petitions to push a referendum on the ballot, and, maybe as soon as the general election cycle in 2018, that would change how commissioners or charter review board members were elected so that only members of their corresponding districts would be able to vote on whom holds the office. 

Forcing an item on the ballot via petition will take effort. Organizers would need to gather 17,000 petitions from valid voters. Those will need to be turned in to the Supervisor of Elections office in time for all voters to be verified and for a judge to confirm the language is clear. But petitions aren’t the only way the measure could make the ballot. The Charter Review Board could vote to recommend county commissioners place the item up for vote without a petition drive, or county commissioners could just take that action up themselves.

Ultimately, a countywide vote on a county charter amendment will have to approve a switch away from countywide votes for county commissioners. Under any mechanism used, it’s voters themselves who will decide how they get represented at the dais.