State Sen. Joe Gruters — who also chairs the Florida Republican Party — last week floated the idea to present a bill to the state legislature urging Sarasota County residents to vote on adding two at-large county commissioners to the five-member county commission.
According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, “Gruters said he wants to bypass local mechanisms for amending the county charter and take the issue to the Florida Legislature.” He raised the idea at the end of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation meeting Thursday, saying after the meeting that he plans to introduce a bill next year that would put the issue on the ballot in Sarasota County in 2024. If voters approve, the new system would take effect in 2026.
This attempt to stage an end-run around local voters, home rule and the county charter comes four years after voters of all party affiliations in all five districts overwhelmingly approved electing county commissioners by Single-Member District (SMD) rather than at-large in the entire county. Gruters’ legislative ploy follows two failed efforts by county commissioners to undo the voters’ will in 2018. In the 2021 Sarasota County citizens’ survey and again in a 2022 special election, county residents reinforced their decision to elect commissioners by SMD.
Nearly 20 other Florida counties elect their commissioners by SMD. The Florida state legislature is elected by SMD, as was State Sen. Gruters, who has yet to complain about being elected at the district-level.
District-level representation provides more direct accountability to constituents. Campaigns are less costly and less dependent on large contributions from local power brokers.
“New at-large seats could give developers at least two safe votes on the county commission”, said Sarasota County Democratic Party Chair Dan Kuether.
“The benefits of that kind of unusual setup for Sarasota County residents are hard to figure out,” Kuether added. “But the driving forces behind this are clear: It’s about more construction and about profits. This is an attack on home rule by the Florida legislature. Sarasota County voters have made it clear in two elections that they want to elect commissioners by district. It’s past time to respect their decision. The senator and our commission should listen and focus on making Sarasota County a better place to live and work.”
Adding insult to injury, Sarasota County taxpayers would have to pay two more commissioner salaries.
“Sen. Gruters is so concerned about district-level elections, maybe he should propose a bill to elect the Florida legislature using the hybrid model he wants for Sarasota County. His senate colleagues may not be so enthused. Instead of trying to defeat Single-Member Districts for a third time, both Gruters and our county commissioners could fulfill their oaths of office by respecting the voters’ will and making decisions that benefit their districts, the county and the State of Florida.”