SARASOTA — With only six of its 10 members present, Sarasota County’s Charter Review Board approved a pair of amendments to the county charter this week that critics claim will stifle future citizen-initiated changes.
The review board’s amendments must now go before the county commission for approval to be placed on the next general election ballot in November 2022, when citizens will have an opportunity to approve or disapprove.
The new amendments, if ultimately approved by voters, would require:
• Signatures from 10% of the registered voters in each of the five commission districts on any citizen-initiated amendment.
• That the amendment not be in conflict with the Florida Constitution, general law, or the county charter.
• That the amendment face scrutiny by the county for legal sufficiency and fiscal impacts.
• That a sponsor of the amendment appear before the Charter Review Board to explain the proposal.
Without discussion, the board unanimously approved the measures, although District 2 board member Donna Barcomb offered the explanation that the measures were meant to “educate” the public.
Critics thought otherwise.
“These proposed changes today add extra layers of regulations and bureaucracy on citizens’ rights to access their own charter,” Lourdes Ramirez, a Republican from Siesta Key, told the board.
“This is the last opportunity that people have to … put something on the ballot if their election officials are not responsive to the public will,” Dan Lobeck, president of Control Growth now, said.
Critics have complained after the amendments became public in July that the new effort to add additional restrictions was a response to three citizen-initiated amendments in 2018, in particular the changed to single-member commission districts.
Barcomb denied that the change in how commissioners are elected had anything to do with the new amendments.
“I felt there was a huge issue with the 2018 election, and I don’t think people were well-educated about the amendments,” Barcomb said.
The newly proposed changes come after county commissioners initiated a pair of changes to the charter that were approved by voters in 2018.
Those changes increased the number of required signatures on a citizen-initiated petition to 10% of the registered voters in the county from the previously required 5%.
In addition, petition organizers would have two years to gather the required signatures, starting the first day after the general election, and would have to submit them between Jan. 1 and April 1 of the next general election year.
The changes approved by the review board come as Florida voters will vote on a state constitutional amendment Nov. 3 that would require changes to the constitution be approved in two elections instead of one in order to take effect.
That measure too is being challenged as another attempt by the Republican-controlled legislature to limit citizen input on changes to the state constitution.
It is not known when county commissioners will discuss the new changes approved by the Charter Review Board.