Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Vote NO! Sarasota County Commission Ordinance Could Muzzle Citizens' Voices

To Sarasota County voters:

"We, the People of Sarasota County, hereby . . . adopt this Home Rule Charter."
These words appear at the beginning of the County Charter, our local constitution.

But if our County Commissioners prevail on Nov. 6th, the voices of "We the People" may be muzzled.

Beware the "Trojan Horse" on the General Election ballot! It was written to look harmless, but it's anything but.  

Our County Charter has been amended over time. Amendments can be proposed in several ways, including by County Commission ordinance and by citizen-initiated petition efforts. Voters ultimately determine the merits of Charter amendments by county-wide referendum. For example, Sarasota County has used paper ballots since 2007 because citizens collected enough valid voter signatures to put the issue on the ballot in the 2006 General Election.  County voters overwhelmingly approved paper ballots despite a failed legal challenge by our County Commission to keep the referendum from reaching county voters. The State of Florida switched to "paper" shortly thereafter.

Now our County Commission is at it again---determined to render the process of amending the Charter by "citizen petition initiative" virtually unattainable. In late August, with little public discussion and by a unanimous 5-0 decision--our Commissioners put the "Citizen Petition" ordinance on the November ballot.

Currently petitioners must gather valid signatures from 5% of county voters (approx. 15,000 petitions) for an amendment to reach the voters. The current 5% valid voter signature requirement has generally taken about two years to achieve---through much perseverance and toil, not by a "voice vote" in County Commission Chambers.   

The County Commission's ballot amendment could greatly harm Home Rule by:
     Doubling the number of valid petitions required to place an amendment on the ballot from 5% to 10% (from about 15,000 valid voter signatures to more than 30,000).
     Greatly reducing the time allowed to gather petitions (a maximum 18-month window between general election cycles).
     Requiring all petitions to be submitted by May 1st of the general election year, although the Elections Office isn't required to  complete the signature verification process until July 1st, or two months after the deadline to submit petitions. 
     Eliminating a rarely used special election option for citizen-petition initiatives while the County Commission would retain its right to hold a special election after approving an ordinance.

See the ballot question below. The wording is vague and potentially misleading. An increase from 5% to 10% seems insignificant without knowing that Sarasota County has over 300,000 registered voters. The ballot wording creates an impression that citizens have two years (or a general election cycle) to reach their petition goal. The "set general election cycle timeframe" is actually a maximum of 18 months, but who would know? All 30,000+ petition signatures would have to be submitted six months before the next general election is held.   

                     County Charter Amendment by Sarasota County Commission ordinance 
Ballot Question: 
Shall Sarasota County Charter Section 7.1 be amended to place citizen-initiated Charter amendments on the next general election ballot upon receiving signatures from 10% of registered voters, provided that signatures are gathered within a set general election cycle timeframe, instead of having an unlimited time to obtain signatures of 5% of registered voters for placement of citizen-initiated amendments on a special election ballot that is held 60 days after certification of the signatures? 
_____YES, for the Charter amendment 
_____NO, against the Charter amendment

For the sake of self-governance in Sarasota County: Vote NO! on this toxic "citizen petition" question.  
(Please forward to other Sarasota County voters with a reminder that County-level ballot questions are listed at the end of this year's long election ballot.)


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