Single-Member Districts Will Restore Power to Neighbors

On Politics

BY JAMES D. KEENEY SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY JUN 9, 2018

I was disappointed to see a highly partisan analysis of the upcoming Sarasota County referendum on single-member districts in your newspaper last week. The article was written by the vice chairman of one of our local political parties and did not hesitate to base its entire argument on baldly partisan political concerns. He also derided single-member districts as “ward politics,” trying unsuccessfully to paint them with all the evils of large, densely populated northern cities.

In fact, the upcoming referendum to give Sarasota County single-member districts is not partisan at all, but something that every voter and citizen should view only from the standpoint of what will give our hugely spread-out and fast-growing county the best and most effective government. Fundamentally, it is also a question of whose concerns should have priority: those of individual voters and neighborhoods or those of land developers and big money?

At present, Sarasota County has five commissioners. Our charter requires that each must reside in the district he or she represents, yet each is elected by the entire electorate. So anyone wishing to represent her own district as a county commissioner must campaign to obtain the support of voters of all five county districts—all the way from the Charlotte County line to the UTC Mall. This campaigning costs big money. Each candidate must reach a huge number of civic groups, churches, businesses, prospective voters and campaign workers in several large media markets. It is almost as if, in order to become a United States Senator from Florida, one had to court voters all the way from Alaska and California to Georgia and Maine—as well as voters in Florida itself.

The money behind these large, county-wide campaigns is mostly dark money from PACs funded by big developers and their rich friends. The commissioners who get elected by filling our mailboxes with glossy flyers often vote as if they are for sale to the highest bidder or already in the pockets of large developers. There seems to be almost no limit to the outrages they will support. Destroy a critical wetland to build a Whole Foods store? No problem. Increase density at the overcrowded intersection of Stickney Point Road and U.S. 41? Why not? Reduce impact fees needed to build enough roads, schools and fire stations for all the new residents? If we don’t, we’ll destroy jobs. Build a cement crushing plant next to our world-class bird watching sanctuary? Even this idea sounded fine to them until incensed neighboring residents flooded the commission chambers to protest.

The answer to this madness is to vote “Yes” on the referendum to give us single-member districts for our county commissioner elections. This non-partisan reform will reduce each candidate’s campaign expenses by 80 percent since they will only have to persuade the 20 percent of county voters who live closest to them. More knocking on doors and speaking to neighborhood groups will make them more beholden to their neighborhood constituents than to big developers and dark money donors. Each section of the county will have a dedicated advocate to voice the interests of its own constituents.

Developers and their dark money will fight hard to defeat this citizen initiative petition to amend the county charter. They prefer the sort of commissioners we have now. Please disregard their slick, well-funded attacks and vote your own interest in good government. Vote “Yes” in November to change county commission elections to single-member districts.

James D. Keeney is a retired member of the Florida Bar

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