More Democracy Can Solve Hospital Board Ills

Under The Hood

The hospital board races in the region heightened anxiety over politicization of Sarasota’s most respected institution. Two years after what many saw as a right-wing takeover of arguably the best performing districts in the state historically, there’s now an anti-establishment slate of candidates trying to ride COVID fatigue into the takeover of a medical treasure.

This has agitated political arguments as three factions seek to take or retain control of Sarasota Memorial Hospital. But what this discussion should inspire is talk of reform and change to the systems that now put control of entities few feel should be subject to the whims of politics.

Florida leaders should look at ways to insulate hospitals from radicals who should probably be prescribed medication rather than be placed in charge of the dispenser. A few steps could be taken short of a complete overhaul that would help tremendously. Best of all, they all involve more democracy, not less.

First, limit the partisanship surrounding apolitical institutions. There’s been a push over the last decade to try and ascribe more party labels on elected offices in Florida. As just one example, a ballot initiative championed by state Sen. Joe Gruters appears on the ballot that asks to make school boards partisan again almost 30 years after Florida voters made clear they didn’t like parties controlling schools.

Voters should, and likely will, reject that. And state lawmakers should take that as a sign voters don’t want politics shaping those institutions we all rely upon regardless how we vote. The only reason hospital seats appear at risk in Sarasota is because they are just to partisan elections. Florida has closed primaries so only registered Republicans vote in GOP primaries. And most don’t. That allows a vocal minority within the party to sometimes take control of the process. That can happen in an open primary but requires a much larger swath of voters to demand a change if it runs counter to what moderates in both parties and those who affiliate with neither are all unified in opposition.

Second, close the write-in loophole. The same year voters made school board nonpartisan races, they also instituted a requirement that when primaries decide the election meaning only candidates of one party qualified — then all voters can vote. But long ago, party leaders learned to exploit a loophole. If a write-in candidate files, which doesn’t even require a qualification fee, the primary closes as voters theoretically select a nominee to face a blank space in November.

A public pressure campaign mounted right before qualification to urge Democrats to drop out of hospital board races. It wouldn’t have mattered if they had. Primaries would still be closed because a bunch of write-ins filed to close primaries just in case.

Finally, put these races in November. Just as when Sarasota moved its city elections to November, this will ensure a broader electorate, and one susceptible to chaotic inconsistency in its outcomes. Election winners will be the ones who appeal to the most voters, not simply who mobilize the most fanatics, regardless of what side they represent.

More than politics-free hospitals and schools, the true issue at hand in recent contests has been the looming  — and sometimes realized — threat of a political holding power despite representing a minority view of the world. That could be solved if policymakers focused more on expanding the power of voters rather than trying to limit the process and turn elections into a complicated game.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor to SRQ MEDIA.



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