On the ballot

Local Officials Want to Make It Harder for Citizens to Change the County Charter

To draw attention to the issue, County Commission candidate Mike Cosentino wore a cowboy hat, a muscle-padded suit and a cape to a public hearing on the topic.

By Isaac Eger July 13, 2022

Sarasota County Commission candidate Mike Cosentino wore a costume to Tuesday's meeting to draw attention to a proposal that would make it harder for citizens to change the county charter.

So it’s come to this.

In order to get the Sarasota County Commission and the media to take the erosion of our rights seriously, you have to dress up in a colorful superhero costume to get some attention. That’s just what County Commission District Two candidate Mike Cosentino did yesterday afternoon, when he donned a red, white and blue cowboy hat, a muscle-padded suit and a red cape and went to the Sarasota County Administration Center to fight against proposed changes to the county charter.

Outside the building, he announced his intentions on a Facebook livestream.

“Your right to amend your constitution is being taken away by your county today,” Cosentino said, referring to item No. 91 on the commission's meeting agenda. 

Unless you pay attention to local political minutiae, you might not know about this potentially significant change to the county charter. Back in October 2020, the Sarasota County Charter Review Board unanimously voted to add amendments to the document; the most contentious of them was a requirement that residents supporting citizen-initiated charter amendments must gather the signatures of at least 10 percent of all registered voters in each of the county's five districts. Previously, the public only needed 10 percent of all registered Sarasota County residents.

To people like Cosentino, this is an unnecessary obstacle meant to “take away our constitutional right to amend the charter.”

On Tuesday, the County Commission was scheduled to review the Review Board’s recommendations and then vote on whether the amendments will appear on the November ballot.

To advocate for the proposed amendments, two chairs of the Charter Review Board, one past and one present, took the podium. David Samuel, the current chair, introduced the former chair, Joe Justice, who was responsible for the proposed amendments when they were first introduced. When Justice took the microphone, he never explained the reasoning behind the proposed changes. He just emphasized that the adjustments to the charter “would not prevent anybody from making a change the charter.”

Every public speaker on the issue was opposed to the amendment, and the opposition turned out to be bipartisan. Bill Van Allen, vice-chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Sarasota County, asked the board not to allow changes to the charter because they “do not benefit the public.” He then said that limiting the public’s ability to govern themselves was "not a good look for the Republican Party."

Alexandra Coe, chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus and current member of the Charter Review Board, claimed that the “previous charter review board didn’t do their due diligence” and said that hindering the public’s ability to amend the law would “destroy the very foundation that this country is built upon.”

The last speaker was Cosentino. While he had to change out of his costume and into something more formal, he still wore his loud red, white and blue cowboy hat. 

“I appreciate the opportunity to again sit up here and watch you guys kick our democracy in the teeth,” he said. For five minutes, he furiously listed all the ways our elected officials have an “adversarial relationship with the truth” and have acted unethically in order to suppress the rights of voters. He also accused the commission and the Charter Review Board of being in the pocket of developers like Pat Neal. He then challenged the board to “grill” him on any of the statutes.

“I’m open for questions,” Cosentino said. “No guts?”

“We’re done,” said County Commissioner Alan Maio. 

Commissioner Mike Moran made it clear that the commenters' thoughts on any potential changes to the charter were moot. He reminded everyone that the commission was only “ministerial” regarding these matters and their opinions did not matter. “If citizens have an issue, they can go to the ballot box," he said. "I would not buck against another elected body.”

“This is not our ordinance,” said Commissioner Nancy Detert. “ If people don’t like what’s on their ballot, they can just vote no.” She went on to say, “Elections have consequences, and if you’re going to make a big change like single member districts, then these things have to get sorted out.”

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger agreed that it was not the board’s place to address the pros and cons of the amendment, but he still pointed out that other Florida counties have similar rules for citizen-initiated charter amendments.

Cutsinger is correct that these kinds of limitations exist in other counties. That's because there has been a concerted effort to make citizen-initiated amendments more difficult to pass. Over the past several years, the Florida Legislature has passed laws to make changing the state Constitution more expensive and complicated. In 2020, Senate Bill 1794 increased the amount of required signatures and raised the fee for each signature to be reviewed. And even when Florida voters manage to get an amendment on a ballot and the amendment passes, legislators work tirelessly to undo the new laws, like they did with felon voting rights.

In Sarasota County, after voters passed the original single-member district amendment with more than 60 percent of the vote, the commission called for a special election in March to have the public vote on the same topic again. That cost taxpayers more $630,000.

But the math is bad. This new ordinance gives an outsized amount of power to one district over the other. Think about it this way: Four of the five districts could have over 90 percent support for an amendment, but if one district only gives 9 percent, then the amendment won’t make it to the ballot.

Nevertheless, the board voted unanimously in favor of placing the proposal on the November ballot.

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