Supervisors Want Voters to Dictate Timing

Todays News

When cities should hold local elections has become a hot topic debated in the Florida Legislature, Sarasota City Hall and jurisdictions around the Sunshine State. Voters in Sarasota will weigh in on the matter this November if state lawmakers don’t make the decision for them. But regardless of the course of public discourse, local elections supervisors remain content to hold elections whenever cities choose. “From my perspective, it’s whatever the voters want,” said Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent.

The issue has particular relevance in Dent’s office as the most prominent city within her jurisdiction prepares for a vote on the issue. Sarasota City Commissioners voted earlier this month to put a measure before voters that, if passed, would end the practice of holding municipal elections in March with a potential runoff in May and would instate schedule a winner-takes-all election in November of even-numebred years. Supporters of the change claim two major gains: higher turnout and lower costs. In the last city election, the runoff for District 2 and 3 commission seats held May 12, turnout was 21.87 percent, according to elections officials, whereas a ballot referenda vote held concurrently with the Nov. 4, 2014 general election drew a citywide turnout of 56 percent by comparison. As for costs, the estimated cost of holding a first election, according to city officials, runs around$63,700; that’s without a runoff, and the last time Sarasota city elections did not result in a runoff was in 1999.

But Dent notes that costs wouldn’t completely disappear for cities with with a November election. The city estimates a cost of $24,000 for an election held concurrently with a November general election, and Dent said that could go up if there were enough races and issues on a city ballot to force the printing of another page of ballot. An extra page on a city ballot would likely run about $6,500, she said. “We couldn’t ask the county to pay for that,” she said. That cost, though, still means it would be cheaper for the city to play in November than in March and May.

In Manatee County, the two largest cities—Bradenton and Palmetto—now hold November elections but all the smaller jurisdictions still hold elections at different times. Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett said the decision to hold election off the state and county cycle “does cost the cities money they don’t need to spend.” But he said for his office, there actually are benefits to the small races. “For example, we just bought new equipment. It’s best to test it in a small election, to test our people and how training is going,” he said. “There’s a lot of little things we learn because of that.” Most important, Bennett said, the cities like having a ballot to themselves without competing with noisy statewide and presidential election politics. Interestingly, Dent and Bennett have more power to dictate election scheduling than they use, and in some counties, supervisors refuse to place city elections on the same ballot as county and state elections, which are the only elections supervisors’ offices by law are required to conduct.

Bennett is opposed to a bill proposed by state Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, that would require city elections be held in November cycles. Bennett said such a move threatens the authority of cities. Dent noted that while her office conducts elections, it’s local clerks that technically serve as election overseers for the contests. That’s true in North Port, the one Sarasota municipality that always holds its city elections concurrent with state and county elections. “Helen Raimbeau, the city clerk, is the supervisor of elections for North Port,” she noted. Likewise, Sarasota City Clerk Pam Nadalini will be that city’s election official even if Dent includes the election on the general election ballot.

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