A campaign to change the City Commission election cycle is ramping up, but critics are making a case to maintain the current system.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor
At a house just south of Hudson Bayou on Saturday morning, a group including past and present city officials, business group leaders and residents gathered to discuss the importance of a referendum on the November ballot.
Different members took the time to speak about how a broad coalition had come together to support moving city elections from March and May of odd-numbered years to August and November of even-numbered years. As supporters of the Change the Date Sarasota political committee, those in attendance said they were part of a bipartisan effort to make it easier for city residents to select their officials.
The speakers included City Commissioner Hagen Brody, Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kevin Cooper, Democratic activist Gabriel Hament and Gulf Coast Builders Exchange Executive Director Mary Dougherty.
One after the other, they talked about how a new election schedule would lead to increased voter participation in City Commission races — and pushed back against critics who opposed the change.
“Despite what you may hear, the whole idea behind this is to make sure voices are being heard,” Cooper said.
Although Change the Date describes itself as a bipartisan coalition, it’s not without its detractors. The Sarasota County Democratic Party has come out in opposition to the proposed charter amendment. So, too, have some residents and former city officials, who say the new election cycle would take attention away from City Commission races.
Suzanne Atwell, co-chairwoman of Change the Date, isn’t concerned about the criticism. Her advocacy for moving city elections dates back to her time on the City Commission, from 2009 to 2017. She points to the turnout in March and May elections, which has recently hovered around 20%, and says it’s time to find a way to get more people to vote.
“I served on the commission for so long, and I saw it in real time with a lot of the votes,” Atwell said. “A few people control some of the most major decisions in this community.”
Asked why the local Democratic Party is opposed to the proposed charter amendment, Mike Shlasko offers a simple answer: Follow the money.
Shlasko, a Democratic state committeeman, points to Change the Date’s leading donors, as well as those who gave to the preceding campaign to get the referendum on the ballot, Decide the Date Sarasota. More than $50,000 has come from the Argus Foundation and the Sarasota Chamber. Building and real estate groups have added more than $40,000.
“That’s a lot of money,” Shlasko said. “We’re talking about close to $100,000 being thrown up by primarily business interests.”
Leaders of those business organizations say their support is rooted in a genuine interest in getting more people involved in elections. They question the assertion that a shift to August and November elections would give their groups more sway over city politics — and suggest opponents of the campaign are actually concerned about their influence declining with increased voter participation.
“It’s harder to control more people,” Dougherty said. “It’s not about control on our side; it’s about control on their side.”
Change the Date representatives are quick to point out the campaign has also received $15,000 from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. The group also touts endorsements from the local chapter of the NAACP, the Manatee/Sarasota Democratic Black Caucus and the Sarasota-Manatee Young Democrats.
The Democratic Party’s opposition to the referendum was upsetting for Brody, a registered Democrat. In an email to party Chairwoman JoAnne DeVries, he outlined why he supported a new election date. He said voter participation for underrepresented demographics in city elections — specifically, racial minorities and young voters — can double or triple in November elections.
“Once again, the Democratic Party is completely dismissive of minority, young people and community organizations that support a cause because it’s not in line with your agenda,” Brody wrote in the email.
Shlasko didn’t dispute the notion that voter turnout in city elections would increase if the charter amendment went into effect. But he said that comes with a series of drawbacks.
It’s harder to campaign in the summer months. Many seasonal residents wouldn’t be in town ahead of the August elections. And most significantly, there are a lot of other topics on the August and November ballot. Shlasko argued it would be difficult for city races to get the same amount of attention when voters are focused on state and national races.
“There’s a focus on city elections held early in the year, when everyone is in town and there’s a single issue on the table,” Shlasko said. “I think we would lose that if we moved to the August and November ballot.”
Atwell called that line of criticism elitist, taking issue with the suggestion city voters weren’t capable of following multiple elections at the same time. Headed into November, Change the Date is honing a straightforward argument for the switch: more participation in city elections would be a good thing.
Shlasko said opponents of the proposal don’t have the financial means of the Change the Date campaign. Still, the Democratic Party is dedicated to getting its message out to the community on the referendum.
“We’re doing it the old fashioned way,” Shlasko said. “We’re knocking on doors; we’re making phone calls.”
Atwell brushed aside most of the opposition as clinging to the status quo, which she thinks favors those who have the time and energy to closely follow city affairs.
“We’ve gotten so used to that, so comfortable with that,” Atwell said. “When we with Change the Date Sarasota want to shake that up, of course it’s disconcerting to some of the electorate.”
The proposed charter amendment would move city elections to August and November, coinciding with state and federal election cycles. Elections would be set up so the deciding vote is always held in November.
If the referendum passes, the changes would begin in the 2020 election cycle. Sitting city commissioners would get 18 months added to their existing terms. The three district seats would be up in 2020, and elections for the at-large seats would be held in 2020.
The text on November’s ballot is:
Charter Amendment: Change in Date of Election of City Commissioners
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.
Link to the Sarasota Observer article can be found here.