Single Member Districts make Commissioners Accountable

Guest Correspondence

Sarasota County voters this November will decide on whether or not to approve a charter amendment that will change our County Commission from at-large voting to single-member districts. What’s the difference?

The county is divided into five districts, with each district having one County Commissioner, and currently everyone in the County votes for all five Commissioners. Approving the single-member district amendment would mean that District One residents would be the only voters selecting the District One County Commissioner, District Two residents would vote on the District Two Commission race, and so on.

Opponents of single-member districts claim county voters are best served when they can choose all five commissioners. Problem is, at-large commission voting has created a nearly complete dilution of accountability to constituents. Simply put, county commissioners are flagrantly ignoring the wishes of their constituents. Single-member districts will restore accountability to Sarasota County government. The Celery Fields controversy is a great example of diminished County Commissioner accountability with at-large voting. County Commissioner Mike Moran represents District 1, home of the Celery Fields. The Celery Fields began as a storm water management project. Restoring those wetlands has led to an explosion in bird population and variety, with over 220 species. As a result, Sarasota is now on the map as an international birding destination.

When James Gabbert, a political insider, proposed building an industrial waste transfer facility (a.k.a. dump) next to this precious natural resource, District One voters came out in droves to oppose it. In spite of the united opposition of his District One constituents, Commissioner Moran supported Mr. Gabbert’s project (the plan was still denied by a 3-2 vote). If Mr. Moran were truly representing his district he would never have voted against their wishes, and if he were elected in a single-member district election, District 1 voters could remove him. The power to remove a commissioner who is not listening to his or her district is severely undermined with our current at-large voting system.

Siesta Key’s District 4 demonstrates more problems with accountability. Commissioner Al Maio recently paid no heed of the scores of Siesta Key residents who opposed the increased building height and reduced setback changes requested by Gary Kompothecras (founder of 1-800-ASK-GARY) for his new hotel. The complete disregard by their own commissioner stunned Siesta Key residents when Commissioner Maio voted to support Mr. Kompothecras’ request.

Commissioner Nancy Detert understood the evident cronyism when she said she was uncomfortable with a process in which the applicant (Kompothecras’ attorney) was writing the code as opposed to staff. “To me, that’s the tail wagging the dog,” Detert said. At-large voting has emboldened such cronyism, for Mr. Maio knows he won’t face the wrath of District 4 voters.
Opponents will make dire predictions of problems with single member districts, but our state legislators and Congressmen are elected this way, and plenty of other Florida counties do the same. It’s time for Sarasota County Commissioners to be held accountable via single member districts.

Cathy Antunes is host of The Detail on WSLR.

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