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Sarasota County voters will decide on Nov. 6 whether commission-proposed changes to citizen-initiated petition drives for Charter amendments become law

By Rachel Brown Hackney

All eight speakers during an Aug. 29 public hearing argued against changes the Sarasota County Commission has proposed for the section of the county Charter that governs citizen-initiated petition drives.

Nonetheless — with the addition of a tweak first suggested by Commissioner Paul Caragiulo — the board members voted unanimously to put the proposed changes before the voters on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot.

If citizens approve them, the board’s amendments would do the following:

  • Raise the voter signature threshold from 5% to 10% for the number needed to get a citizen-initiated proposed Charter amendment on the ballot.
  • Limit the period for collecting those signatures to two years.
  • Require organizers of a petition drive to turn in all their petitions at one time to the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office between Jan. 1 and April 1 of the General Election year in which the amendment would appear on the ballot.
  • Require that all citizen-initiated referenda appear on General Election ballots. No more special elections would be conducted. That change would apply to any Charter amendments proposed by the Sarasota County Charter Review Board, as well, if the commission’s amendments win voter approval in November.

During the board’s June budget discussions, Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner acknowledged that the expense of a special election is about $400,000.

“Ultimately,” Pat Rounds of Sarasota told the board on Aug. 29, “voters decide for or against [citizen-initiated Charter] referendums at election time. Does the County Commission want to deny county voters that option?”

She added that “raising the bar to 10%” for the signature threshold would prevent issues from reaching “the ballot box.”

Siesta Key resident Michael Cosentino, who worked with volunteers to get two proposed amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot, told the board members, “I had people all over this county helping me, and we busted our butts for two years. … It’s an absolute nightmare,” he added, even to get 5% of the voters’ signatures during that period of time.

Mike Shalsko of Venice pointed out that it would be “virtually impossible” to collect all the necessary signatures within the time frame provided for in the amended language.

“This may be the most important vote this County Commission takes,” Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck said. “This is an attempt to squash the people from having the right to put Charter amendments on the ballot. That’s astonishing. That’s offensive.”

After Chair Nancy Detert closed the public hearing, Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out, “We’re not taking anything away from anybody by what we vote on today. … If you all disagree [with the proposed amendments], then just say, ‘No’ [on Election Day].”

“The intent of this is [for] local citizens that are incredibly passionate about a topic [to] take their time and their energy and their passion” to get a measure on the ballot, Commissioner Michael Moran said in making the motion to place the board’s proposed amendments before voters on Nov. 6.

“I think what we’re trying to do is clean up some of the Charter things that maybe have been too loose,” Detert said.

The solitary tweak

The issue that did prompt one tweak to the proposed amendments regarded the ability for organizers of petition drives to “cure” the situation — as Hines put it — when the supervisor of elections determines that an insufficient number of valid voter signatures has been obtained to get a citizen-initiated measure on the ballot.

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh finally proposed an additional sentence in the section of the Charter that would be amended, to ease board members’ concerns on that point. The sentence would read, “Additional signature petitions may be submitted to the supervisor of elections no later than May 1 of the year of the general election.”

The supervisor of elections could communicate with the organizers of a drive after the process of validating the signatures begins, DeMarsh explained. “They can have that communication going on, and additional signatures can come in.”

“I just think that [the stance of] ‘You’ve got to get it right the first time; otherwise you’re out,’ is a little draconian,” Caragiulo told DeMarsh.

Nonetheless, Hines said, “I clearly believe there’s a problem with regards to an unending length of time that a petition signature can remain alive to be considered.”

“Frankly, I think it’s too easy now [to get a citizen-initiated Charter amendment on the ballot],” Caragiulo told his colleagues. “There’s definitely something to a higher percentage [of signatures],” he continued, “because voter turnout’s increasing.”

Still, he questioned the lack of time to turn in additional petitions if the percentage threshold had not been met.

“I agree with Commissioner Caragiulo,” Hines said. “There really almost needs to be an opportunity to ‘cure.’”

If the organizers of a petition drive were short 200 or 500 valid signatures, for example, Hines continued, perhaps it would be reasonable to allow them an extra 15 or 30 days to try to gather enough additional voter signatures to make up that difference.

“Well, I certainly would accept direction from you as to any changes,” DeMarsh responded.

“What is a reasonable, maximum amount of time,” Commissioner Alan Maio asked, for the supervisor of elections to be able to certify all the signatures and then be able to get the proposed amendment on a ballot?

DeMarsh suggested that if the board kept the window from Jan. 1 to April 1 for organizers to submit all their petitions at one time, an additional month could be allowed for the organizers to supplement petitions if the number of valid voter signatures were determined to be insufficient.

If organizers prove to be 18,000 short, Hines said, that is a matter of “Come on! Wake up!” However, if they are 500 short, they have “a pretty good chance [of making up the difference], and there’s an urgency there.”