Charter Review Board proposes changes to citizen-initiated petition drives

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By Rachel Brown Hackney

Although seven members of the public criticized them over the proposal, the six Sarasota County Charter Review Board members present for the board’s last meeting of the year — on Oct. 14 — unanimously approved amendments to the Charter that would necessitate additional steps before a citizen-initiated amendment could be placed on a ballot.

The changes likely will be on the 2022 General Election ballot, according to the board’s county staff liaison.

The primary impetus for the proposal, one board member made clear, was the November 2018 passage of two Charter amendments that Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino wrote. Both were related to his legal fight with the county over a vacated section of North Beach Road.

“I felt there was a huge issue with the 2018 election, and I don’t think people were well educated about the amendments,” Charter Review Board Member Donna Barcomb of Sarasota said during the October meeting. Looking at Cosentino, she added, “Especially yours.”

A couple of speakers had contended that the Charter Review Board was acting in response to the November 2018 passage of the Single-Member Districts amendment, which changed the voting method for County Commission candidates.

Among the provisions of the proposed new changes to the county Charter would be the necessity of ensuring that a citizen-initiated amendment “not conflict with the Florida Constitution, general law, or the Charter.”

Moreover, a group working on a citizen-initiated Charter amendment would have to gather signatures of at least 10% of the number of registered voters in each of the five County Commission districts at the time of the last general election.

“We chose to have each district represented,” Barcomb explained, because of the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment.

Only voters who reside in the same district as a candidate may vote for a candidate for that district seat. Previously, commissioners were elected countywide.

The concern, Barcomb added, was that a person proposing an amendment could be working on a measure, for example, that would be targeted to an issue in District 1 “but maybe negatively affect District 5. So we felt that we wanted each district to be equally represented in regards to its support.”

Among the other proposed changes to the Charter is the necessity of the county’s reviewing a citizen-initiated amendment “for legal sufficiency” and for any fiscal impacts on the county. Further, the sponsor of a petition would be asked to appear during a Charter Review Board (CRB) meeting “between the time of submitting a Charter amendment petition form and June 1st of the year of the general election on the proposed Charter amendment,” unless a majority the Charter Review Board waived that requirement.

During the public hearing that evening, Cosentino emphasized that both of his Charter amendments won more than 60% of the vote in 2018. One amendment said the County Commission could not sell any county-owned land or right of way that had even a waterfront vista. The second called for the commission to rescind its May 2016 vacation of a 373-foot-long segment of North Beach Road on Siesta Key or to reacquire the right of way and return it to public use.

Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Hunter Carroll declared the amendment regarding North Beach Road to be invalid because of its conflict with the county Charter. Carroll also ruled that the first sentence of the other amendment was invalid because of conflicts with several state statutes, but he said it could be severed from the rest of that amendment, leaving the remainder in the Charter. He characterized the second sentence of that amendment as “encouragement to maximize rights-of-way use for public access and viewing waterfront vistas.”

In his ruling, Carroll also pointed out, “In considering a legal challenge to charter amendments such as these, courts presume the amendments to be valid and reasonably construe them to be valid, if possible. If, however, an amendment is unconstitutional, courts must strike the offending amendment even though it means the will of the majority of the electors who voted on the issue cannot be carried out. That is the situation here. The Court does not take this step lightly.”

“It would be mildly stated to say that his decision was legally infirm,” Cosentino told the Charter Review Board members on Oct. 14, referring to Carroll.

The ruling is on appeal, Cosentino added, and he expects Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal to overturn Carroll’s decision.

If the board members approved their proposed amendments that evening, Cosentino continued, “I will crush this in court. It is completely unconstitutional in every form, and you guys, in my opinion, need to start serving the public, which you’re currently not doing, as evidenced by this proposal.”

Among the other six speakers, Lourdes Ramirez of Siesta Key pointed out that she is a Republican, as were all the Charter Review Board members, and “Republicans are supposed to be about limited government, deregulation and lower taxes. Yet, time and time again, I see supposedly Republican officials increase the size of government, add regulations that impact citizens’ rights, and add another layer of bureaucracy that comes with a taxpayer cost.”

She continued, “These proposed changes today add extra layers of regulations and bureaucracy on citizens’ rights to access their own Charter.”

Another opponent of the Charter Review Board (CRB) action, attorney Dan Lobeck of Sarasota, talked of the proposed language requiring the County Commission “to say, ‘Yes, [a proposed amendment] is legally sufficient.’ A court should decide that.”

The fiscal impact provision, Lobeck continued, represents “another opportunity for the county [commissioners] to repeal an amendment that they don’t like, because that [review] is extremely subjective.”

Lobeck then called the necessity for a presentation to the CRB of any proposed Charter amendment “a stage for opponents to attack the change publicly. … Each and every one of these [proposals is] indefensible,” Lobeck said, adding that the goal is to squash citizen-initiated amendments, as they are efforts “to make an end run around the politicians.”

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