By Phil Colpas
Sarasota County’s voters have spoken: Commissioners will continue to be elected by voters in their own districts, and not by voters countywide.
In a March 8 referendum, voters decided to keep county commission elections as single-member districts, with representatives elected by the residents of those districts and not by residents of the entire county. This upholds the change that voters previously put in place in 2018, which passed with about 60% of the vote.
This time around, approximately 57% of voters rejected the referendum to again allow citizens to vote for any commissioner, regardless of what district they may live in or which district that commissioner would represent.
The Siesta Key Association opposed returning to a countywide system, and conducted a survey that indicated citizens’ strong support for the single-member districts: 84% favored voting against returning to countywide voting, 11% favored voting for it, and 5% were undecided.
Commissioners authorized the question of at-large voting to appear on the March 8 ballot on the advice of the county’s Charter Review Board. This would have reversed a 2018 referendum, when voters decided to discontinue countywide elections in favor of allowing citizens to cast ballots for a single county commissioner from the district in which they live.
Both county seats that represent Siesta Key are up for election in November. District 2 includes the northern half of the island, and is currently held by Republican Christian Ziegler, who is also vice-chair of the Republican Party of Florida.
District 2 is also notable because it is the only district in the county that has more registered Democrats than Republicans. District 4 comprises the southern half, and is held by board chair Alan Maio, also a Republican.
No Democrat has held a county seat for more than 50 years. At-large, countywide elections have long been a tool of political strategists to keep the majority party in power.
Republicans in Sarasota campaigned to restore countywide elections. On the other hand, Democrats both in 2018 and this year campaigned against countywide votes, urging voters to reject this charter amendment.
Four of the five current commissioners were selected under the countywide election format. (Vice-chair Ron Cutsinger, District 5, was elected in 2020 under the current single-member district system approved by voters in 2018.)
The deadline is June for potential candidates to enter the race, and primaries (if applicable) are in August. At press time, Ziegler (who won in 2018) had not officially announced he’s running again. Meanwhile, Maio has reached his term limit of eight years.
As of now, Sarasota city commissioner Hagen Brody has announced his candidacy for District 2. So has Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino. (Cosentino ran for District 4 in 2018, when the map was different, losing in the Democratic primary.) They, and other potential candidates, will face off in the Aug. 23 Democratic primary.