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SARASOTA — Shifting Sarasota’s spring City Commission elections to the fall could temporarily extend commissioners’ terms by more than a year.

The City Commission will have several options to phase in new election dates that could temporarily extend commission terms by 18 months should voters in November choose to change the dates of city elections from March and May of odd years to August and November of even years to coincide with with federal, state, county and district elections. Decide the Date, a local campaign that launched a petition last year advocating for the change, collected 4,732 signatures — 996 more than the required 3,736 signatures — needed to put the issue before voters on Nov. 6. The referendum will ask voters whether they support moving city elections.

If voters choose to make the shift, one option would extend the term length of district commissioners set to expire in May 2019 by 18 months or until November 2020 and extend the length of terms of the at-large commissioners set to expire in May 2021 by 18 months or until November 2022, City Attorney Robert Fournier said.

Or the city could hold elections for the three district commissioners in 2019. Those elected would have 18 months added to their terms, so rather than expiring in May 2023, their terms would be up in November 2024. Elections for at-large commissioners would be held in 2021. Those elected would have 18 months added to their terms, so their terms would expire in 2026, rather than 2025.

The city could also temporarily reduce terms for commissioners by more than a year if it chooses to hold elections for the three district commissioners in spring 2019 and elect them for 18-month terms, Fournier said. The term would run from May 2019 to November 2020. Elections for the at-large commissioners would be held in spring 2021. Their 18-month terms would run from May 2021 to November 2022.

District Commissioners Shelli Freeland Eddie, Willie Charles Shaw and Mayor Liz Alpert have terms expiring in 2019. At-large commissioners Hagen Brody and Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch, who represent the entire city, have terms expiring in 2021.

Commissioners will approve the language of an ordinance adding the referendum to the November ballot on June 18. The ordinance will include the phase-in option the commission chooses. The commission will review the ordinance a second time sometime in July before finalizing it. The Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections has already validated the petition.

“The goal should be to get the most clear concise, accurate and understandable summary that you can come up with that advises voters of what the proposal does,” Fournier told commissioners Monday night during the board’s regular meeting.

Proponents of shifting the election dates say the move will increase voter turnout and save taxpayers around $100,000 each election cycle.

“It is anticipated that this move will increase voter participation from a 15 to 23 percent turnout to a 50 to 72 percent turnout,” Decide the Date co-chair and former Sarasota Mayor Suzanna Atwell told commissioners. “That’s more than twice the amount of local citizens participating in our government.”

The idea, however, has met with resistance over the years. Last fall, Brody pushed the item onto an agenda, resurrecting the issue after it had been rejected 18 months earlier, when then-Commissioner Atwell’s motion to begin the process of moving the election date failed to receive support, quashing the issue before it could get to a full vote. Brody’s effort, too, was rejected in a 3-2 commission vote.

Opponents argue the change would minimize city races, reducing them to a smaller role on the ballot when coupled with higher-profile state and national races, as well as county-wide elections. They say that this may cause city issues to take a backseat while potentially driving up campaign costs as city candidates struggle to attract notice.

Link to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune article here.