When two Sarasota city commissioners failed this week to fulfill their obligations and support placement of a fundamental question of governance on the November ballot, they epitomized the arrogance that has long prevailed at City Hall regarding elections.
For years, commissioners and majorities of their appointees have opposed asking voters whether to change their city’s charter and voting schedule to coincide with other election cycles — in part to increase public participation.
Valid arguments can be, and have been, made about the status quo — in which city commissioners are elected in “stand-alone” elections conducted during the spring of odd-numbered years — and the proposition to move municipal voting to even-numbered years, when local, state and national races are decided. Voter turnout in the stand-alone elections has generally been low; participation in even-year elections, when high-profile races are on the ballot, has been higher, especially in November.
The move would not violate voting rights or change the city’s structure of three commissioners elected from districts and two citywide. It is not radical: Bradenton, North Port and Venice have converted to even-year elections or some transitional hybrid.
Yet neither Sarasota City Commissions nor their appointed Charter Review Boards were previously willing to allow voters to debate and decide when to conduct municipal elections.
So, a group with bipartisan leadership — former City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell, a Democrat, and Public Defender Larry Eger, a Republican — launched the Decide the Date initiative aimed at forcing a referendum.
The proposed ballot initiative is intended to ensure that either the commission elections or runoffs will occur in November during an even-numbered year. The petition language is clear, sensible and respectful of the City Commission’s long-standing structure.
The city charter required the group to obtain 3,736 validated petition signatures (representing 10 percent of registered city voters in the last at-large election). Decide the Date quickly gathered 4,732 before ending the petition drive.
The charter states that, if the petition-gathering conditions are met, “the City Commission shall adopt an ordinance to place the charter amendment proposed by the petition on the ballot.”
But, when the City Commission voted this week to adopt an ordinance to place the election-change amendment on the ballot this November — a sensible idea supported by Decide the Date — Commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Willie Shaw voted in opposition. They offered no public explanation before the vote on their decision to flout the charter but let their personal opposition to the petition proposal dictate their negative vote.
The arrogant “no” votes were more troubling than Shaw’s odd diatribe against the proposal later in the meeting, which drew more attention.
There was good cause to discussion the ballot language and strategy for implementing the proposed change, if it is supported by a majority of voters. (In fact, adoption of the ballot summary was appropriately postponed.)
But placement on the ballot should not have been up for debate.
Fortunately, commissioners Liz Alpert, Hagen Brody and Shelli Freeland Eddie did their duty and voted for the ordinance that will put the election proposal to voters — where it belongs.
Link to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune article can be found here.