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After a lengthy debate, a divided City Commission approved a referendum that will ask voters if elections should move from March and May to August and November.

by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

In November, city voters will see a proposal on their ballots to amend the city charter to change the dates of municipal elections.

The summary of the charter amendment will read as follows:

“Changes City Commission elections from March and May in odd numbered years to August and November in even numbered years to coincide with federal, state and county elections. No candidate shall be elected in the August election. The August election shall occur only when required by the number of qualifying candidates. Otherwise, the November election shall be the only election. Changes Commission appointment of Mayor and Vice Mayor to coincide with election dates.”

The City Commission officially set the language for the referendum at a meeting Monday. The decision came in a 3-2 vote — and only after the group behind the ballot initiative raised potential legal issues regarding the commission’s first choice.

The Decide the Date campaign launched in December, gathering signatures to trigger a referendum on moving the commission elections. The group wants to move elections from March and May of odd-numbered years to August and November of even-numbered years. Decide the Date argues the proposed schedule, which lines up with the state and federal election cycle, would create higher voter turnout.

The commission originally voted to approve ballot language that did not mention the new election dates would coincide with federal, state and county elections. The Decide the Date campaign objected to that decision, arguing that it withheld essential information about the charter amendment.

City Attorney Robert Fournier said Decide the Date made a valid point. More than an hour and a half after the commission first selected ballot language, Fournier asked the board to reopen its discussion and select a different option. He said the specificity was important, particularly because there was room to insert additional wording.

“The chief purpose isn’t merely to change it to August and November,” Fournier said.

The commission ultimately followed the city attorney’s advice, though commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Willie Shaw voted against withdrawing approval for the language the commission initially adopted.

Suzanne Atwell, former mayor and co-chairwoman of the Decide the Date campaign, said she was happy the issue was settled and voters would have a chance to consider the proposed charter amendment.

“I’ve been working on this issue for years,” Atwell said. “I’ve been wanting to increase voter turnout for years and years. Now, tonight, finally, we’re on the ballot. It’s now up to the voters.”

Link to the Sarasota Observer article can be found here.