Should Sarasota County Commissioners be elected by the entire county, or by the residents in the district they represent? It’s a question that has been debated more than once, and it was last answered in 2018, when nearly 60 percent of voters voted in favor of creating single-member districts—meaning commissioners are chosen only by the voters in the district in which they reside, similar to how Congress is elected.
But now, less than four years later, the Sarasota County Commission would like a do-over. Late last year, the board unanimously voted to put a measure on the county’s March 8 special election ballot that revisits the issue. (The proposed amendment appears on the same ballot as the potential renewal of Sarasota County Schools’ 1-mill ad valorem tax.)
Should the County Commission's amendment pass, the charter would be changed to read that “one commissioner residing in each district shall be elected by qualified voters of the county” rather than “in the district in which they reside,” as it reads now.
“You have five people up here that can affect the lives of our citizens and all the citizens should be able to vote for those folks that can impact their lives,” said Sarasota County Commissioner Mike Moran, who supports eliminating single-member districts, during a commission meeting on the topic.
Opponents, like Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck, who is advocating to keep single-member districts as part of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, say the current system allows for candidates who don’t have deep financial backing to run for office, and encourages commissioners to listen to their local constituents, rather than the loudest voices in the county. There’s also a precedent. According to the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections, out of Florida’s 17 most populous counties, 13 elect their county commissioners at least in part through single-member districts.
“There’s five times a chance you’re going to have a champion for your interest if you have single-member districts,” says Lobeck. “With countywide voting, a commissioner can just blow off a constituent, knowing it’s not the constituents that are going to determine their fate. It’s the contributors.”
The current timeline is reminiscent of the last time this question was put to Sarasota voters: in 1992, when voters approved single-member districts, and 1994, when they returned to countywide elections. Since the 2018 vote, only one election has occured, and Lobeck has a theory that explains the sense of urgency.
“They’re scared to death that the developer-controlled candidates who are now on the commission can’t be elected in single-member districts,” he says.
Ask Moran the same question—why now?—and his answer is the exact opposite.
“Democrat operatives have openly admitted that single-member districts are a strategy to try and gain a seat on the County Commission,” says Moran. Moran and the other four commissioners are all Republicans.
At the December meeting at which the commission voted to put the amendment on the March ballot, more than 25 speakers offered more than an hour and a half of public comment, with the vast majority opposed to countywide elections. Some begged commissioners to honor the earlier vote. Others expressed a desire that commissioners be incentivized to represent their particular regions and constituents.
“North Port wants someone who we elect, not someone who Sarasota and Siesta Key want to represent North Port,” said North Port resident Carolann Palm-Abramoff. “We need the chance to get good people from our district in North Port who know the community deeply and who are part of us.”
Despite the overwhelming opposition, commissioners voted to move forward with the vote after a brief discussion. Three of the five commissioners—Alan Maio, Nancy Detert and Moran—are term-limited, and won’t be immediately affected by the March vote one way or the other. Commissioner Christian Ziegler is up for reelection this November, while Commissioner Ron Cutsinger is eligible for reelection in 2024. If single-member districts are voted down in March, it would ease their path to reelection.
“When you get into single-member districts, you will have certain people and certain alliances form,” Ziegler said at the meeting. “Every Sarasota resident should be able to hold accountable—hire or fire—every one of the five county commissioners.”
Cutsinger echoed that point. “We’re simply allowing individuals to vote as to their preference here,” said Cutsinger. “We’re not making the choice. We’re allowing our constituents to make the choice.”
Indeed. March will be the test.