Preserving an Inclusive Legacy in the City of Sarasota

Guest Correspondence

Voters spoke overwhelmingly in 2018 they wanted a more inclusive election of their City Commissioners. The Change the Date initiative was an unprecedented petition initiative campaign in Sarasota to increase voter turnout and the voice of minorities in elections. This Charter amendment proposal moved the date of city elections from off-cycle to when the most people vote, in August and November of even years.

It was a remarkable campaign that unified some of our most incredible groups across a spectrum of beliefs. They came together in to increase the voter representation of blacks, Hispanics and young people. Co-Chaired by Democrat and former Mayor Suzanne Atwell and Republican Public Defender Larry Eger, this partnership included amazing organizations like the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, ACLU of Florida, Gulf Coast Builder’s Exchange, Sarasota NAACP, Manatee Sarasota Building Industry Association, Sarasota ACLU, Realtor Association of Sarasota Manatee, the Sarasota Police Union and The Argus Foundation, among others.

It started with a petition campaign in 2017 timed to make sure the referendum would be voted on in a regular November election. The campaign quickly achieved the petition requirement and almost 1,000 more petitions than what was needed.

It had wide support and that showed in the final polls in 2018, with 63% of voters wanting a more inclusive electorate.

Upon the first election under that new charter amendment, the City elected what was at that time the most diverse City Commission in the history of Sarasota. A woman, a black man and a young Hispanic man were elected to represent the city in one of the highest voter turnouts in city history.

It was a dramatic result that came about from the increased electorate representation for minorities. Black participation in the election of city commissioners more than doubled and there was an astounding 900% increase in Hispanic participation. 

But the important changes did not stop with that election. The election led to diverse leadership appointments, with the first black City Manager and the first Hispanic Police Chief. The second city commission election under this amendment, this month, led to a woman-majority on the City Commission. 

This past summer, Commissioner Hagen Brody took this initiative one step further and proposed a charter amendment to make sure that all charter changes, or changes to what is essentially the city “constitution,” are voted on by the electorate when representation is the highest. 

The Change the Date partners came back together again to encourage the City Commission to place the amendment on the ballot. In a passionate and eloquent speech, after reciting the increased minority participation statistics, Change the Date Co-Chair Suzanne Atwell testified “the evolution of this community is in a direction that is rising to the challenge of maximizing diversity and inclusion. As a community, we should take every opportunity to continue walking in this direction. Any conscious decision to remain rooted in a past that so obviously limited diversity and inclusion is of questionable merit.”

In a supermajority vote, Mayor Arroyo, Vice Mayor Battie, Commissioner Brody and Commissioner Alpert placed the item on the November ballot.

The city electorate passed this amendment with a strong 19% win-margin. It was not close.   

This referendum makes sure the original Change the Date amendment will never be overturned in a special election with a small electorate, and it ensures higher minority representation in changes to the city charter in the future. 

Congratulations to the city voters and the amazing and visionary group of community leaders and organizations who unified to make this historic and important change possible. The future is bright and now guaranteed to be more inclusive in the City of Sarasota.  

Christine Robinson is executive director of The Argus Foundation.

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