Decide The Date Could Extend Commission Terms

Politics

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY FRESHLY SQUEEZED CONTENT EVERY MORNING TUESDAY JUN 19, 2018

If Sarasota voters approve a shift in the election schedule within the city, sitting commissioners will have 18 months added onto their terms. Leaders on Monday night, whether they favored a switch to November elections or not, voted 3-2 that the best way forward meant adding more than a year to their own terms. “If approved by voters, you should just get on with it,” says City Attorney Robert Fournier. “This would eliminate any spring elections after the change was approved.”

A switch away from elections in spring of odd-numbered years to contests in fall of even-numbered years has long proved contentious in Sarasota, and city commissioners on multiple occasions in recent years declined the chance to put the measure up for vote. But this year, the Decide the Date political committee successfully gathered petitions from 4,732 city voters, 27 percent more than required to put a charter amendment on the ballot for vote. Commissioners have now scheduled a referendum to appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Commissioners on Monday briefly considered scheduling a special election for the measure, but settled on a November vote, something the group behind the measure strongly preferred. “It was always the intention for this to land on November, when the most people will be voting,” says Suzanne Attwell, Decide The Date co-chair. The group also strongly favored extending the terms of sitting commissioners so that, in the event the referendum wins a majority, Sarasota will not need to schedule spring elections again.

By extending the terms of sitting officials, district commissioners will stay in office until November 2020, and at-large commissioners will stay until November 2022. Alternatively, commissioners could have left their own terms unaltered, then held spring elections so the next round of elected officials won shorter terms of office. But that would either have meant electing commissioners in 2019 to just an 18-month term or putting off the first November elections in the city until 2024. “Maybe my grandchildren would be able to enjoy that,” Larry Eger, Decide The Date co-chair, said sarcastically.

But the decision drew some criticism. Neighborhood leader Kate Lowman, who opposes the measure, says commissioners may pay a political price for extending their own time in office, fairly or not. “I don’t mean to suggest you would be acting out of self interest, but I do think you will find people reading it that way,” she said.

City commissioners have not yet approved final language to appear on the ballot. Jim Lampl, who said he worries city issues will get lost in the noise around November elections, says he hopes commissioners can make the issue of moving the elections more clear before ballots get printed. “It’s hard to imagine what the casual voter will think this intricate language means,” he said. In addition to moving the election, the referendum would also require runoffs in November even if a candidate gets a majority of votes in an August primary. And if only two candidates file for a seat, the election automatically moves to the November general election instead of a first election the same date as the state primary.

Supporters of the measure say it’s an important step in boosting voter involvement in the city, and predict it will raise turnout in city elections from 15 to 23 percent typically seen now into the 50 to 72 percent range typically seen in November general elections.

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