The Sarasota City Commission now has 4,732 reasons to enable voters to decide whether to change their voting schedule.
Decide the Date Sarasota, a campaign that has support from the political left and right, gathered that many certified petitions — 996 more than required — calling for a referendum on the city’s stand-alone elections.
The City Commission’s job will be to conduct a public hearing, adopt an ordinance and seek the initiative’s placement on the ballot; the commission should do so with deliberate speed, so the question can be posed to municipal voters in the November general election.
For years, City Commission majorities and the city’s Charter Review Board, whose members they appointed, have declined to put Sarasota’s election schedule to referendum. We understand there is opposition to the proposed change, but have long believed that voters deserve to have a say on this decision of fundamental governance.
They will finally have that opportunity, unless the City Commission somehow refuses to have a referendum conducted in timely fashion.
Sarasota has long had stand-alone elections in March, with frequent runoffs in May, in odd-numbered years. Voter participation has consistently been low.
The proposed ballot initiative, if approved by a majority of voters, would ensure that either the commission election or a runoff will occur in November, when overall turnout generally ranges between 50 percent and 80 percent.
Sarasota’s City Commission has three members elected only by voters residing in one of three districts. (Commission elections are nonpartisan, at least to the extent that the party affiliations of candidates don’t appear on the ballot.)
According to the proposal, if two candidates run for a district seat, they would face off in November. If three or more candidates file for a district seat, the first round of voting would be conducted in conjunction with primaries for county and state offices, normally in August; the top two vote-getters would compete in a runoff on the November general election ballot.
The commission also has two at-large seats; those elections are conducted simultaneously, with all candidates in the same pool. The proposed change states that, if four or more people run for the at-large seats, they will participate in a first election that coincides with the primaries. The three candidates with the most primary votes would advance to a runoff in November.
This is a sensible proposal that warrants, and is likely to receive, spirited debate in light of the entrenched opposition and the wide array of initiative supporters, ranging from the Sarasota NAACP and ACLU Florida to the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and the Argus Foundation. (Suzanne Atwell, a Democrat and former city commissioner, and Larry Eger, the Republican public defender, led the campaign.)
If the measure is approved by a majority of city voters, the change in Sarasota would be significant. Yet it would not be radical, by any means. Bradenton and North Port have, for instance, changed from stand-alone elections to an even-year cycle focused on November — and experienced substantial increases is voter participation.
It’s appropriate for local voters to decide when they vote. Let the debate on the date begin.