Locals grapple with possible voting change
One organization hopes to change way residents vote for Sarasota County commissioners
By LAUREN COFFEY
NORTH PORT — North Port and Sarasota County officials and involved residents are pushing back against a proposed amendment that could change the way the Sarasota County Commission is structured.
A Democrat group called “Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections” (SAFE) is working to gather 15,000 petitions to add an amendment on an upcoming ballot, which would turn the County Commission into a singlevoting system. Currently, residents vote for any county commissioner running for each of the five districts. Under the proposed change, residents would only vote for the commissioner who lives in their district.
Kindra Muntz, president of the SAFE board, said the change would bring a multitude of benefits: reducing campaign costs, empowering neighborhoods and strengthen participation in local government.
“The county is growing and North Port is a great example of a place that’s growing by leaps and bounds,” Muntz said. “People of various districts feel the commissioners are not listening to them; they’re more responsive to big money interest that helped get them elected than people who go to meetings.”
However, North Port locals feel otherwise.
Former Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson spoke with the North Port Area Chamber of Commerce Government Relations Committee on Thursday morning to discuss this possible change.
“The general sentiment is
this is not going to be a good thing for Sarasota County,” she said. “If you think Tallahassee and Washington are working great, that’s the system this would take on.”
Robinson had several concerns about the proposed change, the main being if each commissioner solely represents their own district, they would be less willing to work together.
“You need three county commission (votes on an item) to get anything done,” Robinson said. “I don’t care how responsive the one (in your district) will be to you; you won’t get anything done. As a former county commissioner, you wouldn’t have the (Shannon Staub) library down the road with this system. I think it’s likely the book-ends of the county will suffer the most, which is Englewood, North Port and north Sarasota County.”
Jamie Miller, a staffer with the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, added he has seen counties with this system have the “bookend” districts get ganged up on by bigger districts.
“Normally it happens with three commissioners or districts ganging up on each other,” Miller said. “Those three districts will gang up on other two. They talk about the dump, the sewer system and everything ended up in one or two districts. That’s normally how it works, and the fear for this group is this is one of the district that will get dumped on.”
However, Muntz said the requirement now is for county commissioners to work together and a possible voting district change would not alter that protocol.
“The very fact is all the county commissioners will have to work together as they always do for the benefit of the county,” she said. “But there will be more attention for the residents of the district. They will have to get to know the issues and work with issues to benefit not only North Port but other parts of the county. It’s a requirement now (to work together) but what we’re hearing is people don’t feel heard.”
But chamber member and North Port City Commission candidate Peter Bartolotta said while that may have been the case, times have changed, “When someone says (the county does not care about North Port) ask them about the (Shannon Staub Public) library, the Braves (spring training stadium), River Road, economic development. Those wouldn’t have happened (without the county support) and (the amendment change will) take it backward. We have to share the stories (of success working with the county) because I’m tired of hearing about what happened in 1983 or whatever. The world has changed.”
Muntz said the board has collected enough petitions to add the amendment to the ballot, but does not know when that will be in place.
“We know November will be a long ballot, but if we wait until spring it’ll be a special election and cost money and we want to save taxpayer money,” she said. “So we’re debating to have it on the November ballot but we need to know if it has support.”
She said they will make an announcement June 22 for which ballot the amendment will be on.