Fact and Fiction

The big money development interests and their allies, who today control County policies through expensive Countywide elections for our County Commissioners, are doing all they can to defeat the citizens’ initiative for Single Member Districts.

They are trotting out every argument they can conceive, as a smokescreen to their real objective of keeping their power and with it the uncontrolled growth which threatens our traffic mobility, environment, neighborhoods, taxpayers and quality of life.

Here is a primer on arguments which are being raised against Single Member Districts and why they
don’t hold water.

FICTION: Election by single member districts is a radical idea that departs from the normal practice of choosing Commissioners in big County wide elections.

FACT: Many Florida counties (27) elect their county commissioners in single member districts or mostly single member districts. That is the prevailing practice in the larger and medium-sized counties, where with so many voters County-wide elections have become unwieldy and expensive. At-large voting in Florida is generally confined to the smaller counties.

If electing our Commissioners County-wide was ever appropriate, Sarasota County has now outgrown it, with over 300,000 voters County-wide and increasing rapidly. Reaching all of those voters and getting enough to win is almost impossible – unless you have the big-money development interests bankrolling your campaign.

Further, consider that single member districts are the norm for choosing other representatives throughout Florida and the nation. Should we elect our state legislators in statewide votes rather than in districts? Should we elect each of our members of Congress in nationwide elections? Of course that doesn’t make sense and neither does the County-wide election of our County Commissioners, particularly now that the County has grown so large.

FICTION: Single member districts should be defeated because if there is to be a change it would be better to have a mixed system with some Commissioners elected in districts and others County-wide.

FACT: First, a mixed system is not on the ballot and there is no prospect that it will be. So the only decision for a voter is whether single member districts, as proposed, are better than County-wide elections as we have today.

In any event, a mixed system is only a partial reform which leaves in the place the developers’ dominance of expensive County-wide elections for some County Commissioners. A principled Bradenton Times journalist recently noted that in Manatee County, their mixed system still makes it next to impossible for good candidates to beat the big money developers for the at-large seats. Can County

Commissioners beholden to developers who pay for their county-wide campaigns really pay attention to the concerns of voters in their own district?

FICTION: Single member districts will create corrupt “ward politics” in which Commissioners do favors only for the people in their districts, to get their votes, without concern with what is best for the County as a whole.

FACT: We need advocates for the needs of the people in each district. The people of North Port or Englewood for example, should be able to look to a County Commissioner who is truly committed to them, to answer questions and to facilitate action by County government.

And is there less integrity in that or in the current system which encourages Commissioners to neglect the people of their district in favor of the big money interests needed to get elected County-wide?

FICTION: Single member districts won’t stop the developers from using their big money to control elections. They’ll spend as much for their Commission candidates but just concentrate the spending on the voters in each district.

FACT: This misses the point. While a grassroots candidate can’t put a flyer in every mailbox every day – as the developer candidates often do now (and how much more of that is even possible?), single member districts give a principled candidate a fighting chance. Instead of reaching 300,000 voters, it costs far less to reach 60,000 – or even fewer if frequent voters are targeted. Also, with support of neighborhood leaders in the district and motivated volunteers, a grassroots candidate who is on the side of the citizens in a single member district has a much better shot at overcoming the big money spending of the developer machine.

FICTION: Single member districts will “explode our county tax rate and budget”.

FACT: If we can elect Commissioners who are not beholden to the big money interests to win expensive Countywide campaigns, maybe they will shift the costs of growth from taxpayers to developers, stop wasteful subsidies of stadiums and rowing parks and bring the County budget under control, to the benefit of all taxpayers. And, yes, while supporting needed facilities to serve their districts and the County as a whole.

FICTION: It is better to be able to vote for all County Commissioners rather than only the one in your district.

FACT: It is not better to vote in County wide elections if they are dominated by the massive spending of development interests and principled candidates are unable to effectively compete. Our voices and our votes are being drowned out in County-wide elections. What good is having a broader participation when the system is stacked against you and your interests?

If, however, every voter is given elevated importance in electing his or her County Commissioner on a district basis, and that is repeated district by district throughout the County, we may well get five County Commissioners who listen and respond more to their constituents than to their contributors.

FICTION: This is nothing more than an effort by Democrats to take over the County Commission.

FACT: While Democrats who believe in reform have contributed to the efforts to get single member districts on the ballot, this is a change which is also supported by principled Republicans, independents and members of other parties. One of the chief advocates of single member districts, in debates being held throughout the County leading up to the vote, is a lifelong Republican with many years as a leader in the local Republican Party.

And while Democrats may have a somewhat increased chance of electing a Commissioner in one north County district, Republicans still hold a majority in districts throughout the County so their control of the County Commission is highly unlikely to change. As the 2018 primary elections for Sarasota County Commission clearly show, there are principled, grassroots Republican candidates who are willing to run, as well as Democrats. The only difference will be such candidates stand a much better chance of being elected if they are able to run in single member districts.

FICTION: Sarasota County tried single member districts in 1992 and it was a huge failure, causing the voters to repeal it in 1994. We should not repeat a proven mistake.

FACT: This one false argument exposes more than any other the real motivation of the opposition.

Single member districts were added to the County Charter by citizen petition and referendum prior to the 1992 County Commission elections. In those elections, one Commissioner was reelected in his district without opposition. In the other district up that year, Siesta Key leader Jack O’Neill was elected on the support of his constituents, without backing by the development interests. He became an independent Commissioner, doing what he believed was right for the people. The developers did not like that and certainly did not want to see it repeated with the election of three of the five Commissioners at the next election. So they persuaded the County Commission to put repeal of single member districts on a special ballot, formed a political action committee to support it and spent heavily to get it passed.

So single member districts were a failure for the development interests, who benefit from expensive County-wide elections.

Single member districts were a demonstrated success for the rest of us.

That is why, 24 years later, we need to get them back.

Who is supporting the amendment?

Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike are voting YES for single member districts.

Our supporters include:

Control Growth Now

Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections

Sierra Club

On November 6th, help take big money out of politics and return power to the neighborhood level by voting YES on the Sarasota County charter amendment on single member districts.