County Commission is seeking approval of several measures of its own to change citizen-initiated petition drive process
After the Sarasota County Commission voted unanimously last month to put several of its own proposed Sarasota County Charter amendments on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot, community activists have voiced concerns.
Organizers of Charter petition drives, especially, have taken issue with the board’s desire to increase the percentage of signatures of registered voters from 5% to 10% for a measure to make it onto a ballot.
Yet another focus of frustration has been the fact that the board wants to require all signed petitions to be submitted at one time, instead of their being provided to the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office in batches as they are completed. Commissioners and County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh said in July that that change would eliminate situations, for example, in which a voter who signed a petition died before the initiative even won a place on a ballot.
Further, any petition drive would have to collect the necessary number of signatures within the two-year window between general elections. That is because the commissioners also propose to eliminate special referenda for citizen-initiated, County Commission-initiated and Sarasota County Charter Review Board-initiated amendments.
The proposed ordinance with the commission’s amendments says the petitions would have to be submitted to the supervisor of elections no earlier than Jan. 1 and no later than April 1 of the year of the general election in which organizers seek to get their measure on the ballot.
On July 11 — during their last meeting before taking their traditional weeks-long summer break — the commissioners offered final suggestions to County Attorney DeMarsh about the language they wanted to see in their proposed changes for the county Charter. They also asked that DeMarsh put everything into one document, though they acknowledged that they could decide later to split up their ideas into more than one ballot measure after holding a public hearing on the issues.
That public hearing is set for the board’s afternoon session during its regular meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 29, in the Commission Chambers at the Administration Center in downtown Sarasota. The session will begin at 1:30 p.m., but the exact time of the hearing has not been set. The start will be contingent upon other factors, including the amount of time speakers may take to address the board during the Open to the Public period provided at the start of both morning and afternoon meetings.
Additionally, the Aug. 29 agenda was not available prior to The Sarasota News Leader’s deadline for this issue.
In response to a News Leader request, DeMarsh provided a copy of the proposed ordinance that encompasses all the changes commissioners requested last month.
Among the findings of fact, that ordinance says the following:
“The requirement that only 5% of registered voters sign a petition is less than required for most other charter counties. The 10% requirement would demonstrate that a greater number of registered voters support the proposed amendment.”
“It is desirable to clarify the citizen initiated petition process to provide certainty to the petitioners and signers as to when a potential amendment would be voted on; to reduce the costs of referendum elections; and to provide adequate time for the Supervisor of Elections to certify petition signatures and conduct the resulting election”.
“Because the cost of a specially called countywide election is approximately $400,000, which is paid out of [property tax] revenues, it is necessary to combine referendum elections with general elections to reduce costs and ensure that the maximum number of voters participate in the referendum election.”
Finally, the hearing will address the proposal of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections to change the Charter so that only voters in the district the County Commission candidate would represent — which also would be the district in which the candidate resides — could vote for that candidate.
The current Charter provisions require one commissioner for each of the county’s five districts, but every registered voter is able to cast a ballot in every commission race. For example voters in the Nov. 6 General Election will be able to cast ballots to choose two commissioners, one to represent District 2 and another to represent District 4.