There are two Sarasota County Commission races on the November ballot, with candidates vying for seats in Districts 2 and 4. As county voters, do we know:
Where Districts 2 and 4 are located, south, north or mid-county?
In which of five County Commission districts we reside?
Which one of our five commissioners lives in our district?
If the commissioner who lives in our district seeks input on local issues important to us?
A response of “I don’t know” or “not sure” to any of these questions suggests that electing county commissioners on an “at-large” basis isn’t working as promised. While each county commissioner must live in one of five geographic districts, they are elected by all county voters. So there is an illusion of local accountability and little more. And it may not matter if your district’s commissioner doesn’t take interest in your community. Why? Because that commissioner doesn’t need your district’s votes to succeed.
He or she can focus instead on getting votes from the other four districts — winning easily without your support. Commissioners elected on a county-wide basis can rely on a few big donors and PACs to fund their costly campaigns — flooding voters with direct mail, endless “robo” calls, text messages, social media ads, etc. Big money dominates in Sarasota County and prevails. It shouldn’t take a small fortune to be a viable County Commission candidate.
We can change this situation now. Fellow county residents learned that other large and growing counties in Florida currently vote by single-member district. Sarasota County ranks 14th largest out of 67 counties in Florida, and it contains all or part of five state legislative districts. So with the goal to giving us the opportunity to decide what’s best for Sarasota County, some of our neighbors persisted and collected over 15,000 valid voter signatures to put single-member districts on the November ballot as a County Charter amendment.
Direct or district-level representation is an established form of accountability at the state and federal levels. The state Legislature and U.S. Congress are elected by district, not “at-large.” And regardless of governing body, elected officials serve not only their district-level constituents but the broader needs of the county, state or country. Countywide issues like red tide or traffic congestion should be issues relevant to every county commissioner, regardless of district designation. Commissioners who understand their responsibilities work together to solve local and county-level challenges.
A new vision is needed for the future of Sarasota County which emphasizes quality of life for all residents, not just the goals of a few local developers. Isn’t it time for a commission that will demonstrate concern for their districts and for the good of the entire community — for our economy, jobs and environment?
Let’s elect our County Commission by district to help ensure they listen to all of our voices, and not a merely a handful of powerful donors who bankroll “at-large” countywide campaigns. Thanks to the petition efforts of fellow citizens, this ballot choice is ours to make. Vote “yes” for single-member districts in November.
Pat Rounds is the past secretary for Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections.^p