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Politics / Issues

Sarasota County voters will decide how they elect their county commissioners

Downtown high rise with view of street and bay.
Sarasota City Government
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A March 8 special election also has the renewal of a school sales tax on the ballot in Sarasota County.

Four years ago, Sarasota County voters decided to elect commissioners through single-member voting. A Tuesday referendum asks voters if they want to return to countywide voting.

Sarasota County residents will head to the polls Tuesday to determine whether county commissioners should stop being elected in single-member districts.

A special election referendum asks voters if they want a return to countywide voting.

It was just four years ago when almost 60% of all voters passed a referendum to elect commissioners through single-member voting.

Sarasota Herald Tribune reporter Anne Snabes recently discovered that the change is being supported by a political action committee based in Tallahassee.

WUSF's Cathy Carter spoke with Snabes about the issue.

Sarasota County voters approved single-member districts in 2018. Why did Sarasota County commissioners decide to put this referendum on the ballot to repeal this when voters seem to like it?

That's a good question. Before 2018, when this referendum was passed, Sarasota County voters could select every commissioner — there are five Commissioners — and vote in every election, whereas currently, voters can only vote once every four years for one commissioner. And so, the commissioners believe that in a way, single-member districts are taking away people's votes. That's their perspective.

Okay, that's one opinion in favor of countywide voting districts. What are the folks that are in favor of keeping the present system say?

One of their bigger arguments I would say is they feel like the single-member districts is a system that allows for more accountability, because a commissioner is only elected by the people of their district, they're not going to be elected overall. The commissioner actually has to receive a majority of votes from their specific district because under countywide, potentially you have a commissioner who does not have much support in their district, but has support in other districts, but that's enough to get them elected. So, accountability is a big argument.

So, we've had our quick civics primer on county elections. And here's where things get pretty interesting. You've discovered through your reporting that there's a group outside of Sarasota County, in Tallahassee, that is funneling a lot of money into this referendum to repeal single member districts. Tell us about that.

Yes, that committee is called Sun Coast Alliance and they are like you said based in Tallahassee. The chairperson of that committee is named Mr. William Stafford Jones and he actually operates many political committees in the state, including some nonprofit organizations. And I found this by looking in the state's campaign finance database. And I saw that in late January, Sun Coast Alliance received a $100,000 donation from an organization called Serious Conservatives. More recently, I've actually spoken with Mr. Jones and found out that 501C organizations are not required to reveal the names of their donors. And so, we honestly don't really know where the money's coming from.

Snabes Anne 2021 (1).jpg
Sarasota Herald Tribune
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Anne Snabes is a reporter for the Sarasota Herald Tribune newspaper.

Have you spoken to leadership of the Sarasota County Republicans? What did they say about this campaign from outside the county?

I've spoken with Mr. Jack Brill, he's the acting head of the Sarasota Republican Party. And he said that he is not familiar with Sun Coast Alliance, and he's not involved with their campaign. The Republican Party is actually running their own separate campaign. They've been sending out voter guides to voters, but they say they're not involved in this other separate campaign involving Tallahassee PAC.

So, what are some of your takeaways from your reporting on this story?

There are a couple takeaways. One, like you said, is there are these outside political forces who are part of this election in Sarasota County, which surprised me because this is a local election. I didn't realize that there be PACs based in other cities involved. But I think it really shows that single-member districts is an important issue here. The fact that people in other areas of the state are involved, and that there's been a lot of money spent on it. I mean, it could just be a small referendum in March that not many people pay attention to, but I think it shows how our commissioners are elected. It's something that a lot of people care about.

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