Sarasota County Charter Review Board Races Heat Up

Sarasota is one of twenty home rule or charter counties in Florida. The County Charter is not unlike a local form of  the U.S. Constitution. The County Charter establishes how the county is governed and may be amended. All proposed amendments to the County Charter must pass through the Sarasota County Charter Review Board (CRB).

According to the Sarasota County website, ” The Charter Review Board reviews and recommends changes to the Sarasota County Charter for improvement of County government on behalf of the citizens of Sarasota County. These recommendations are subject to referendum in accordance with the provisions of Article VI of the Charter. An affirmative vote of two-thirds of the Charter Review Board members is required to recommend amendments for referendum.”

A charter amendment may be proposed by a citizen, the Charter Review Board or the Board of County Commission.

Five of the ten CRB seats are up for election in 2012. According to the Sarasota County Supervisor of Election website the following candidate have qualified to run:

Charter Review Board, District 1 Paul A. Cajka Sr. (REP)
Charter Review Board, District 1 H. Ross Gustafson (REP)
Charter Review Board, District 1 Anthony “Tony” Sawyer (REP)
Charter Review Board, District 2 Donna Barcomb (REP)
Charter Review Board, District 2 Marie Nisco (REP)
Charter Review Board, District 2 Alexandra Coe (LIB)
Charter Review Board, District 3 Fred Tower III (REP)
Charter Review Board, District 3 Pat Wayman (REP)
Charter Review Board, District 4 Mark Hawkins (REP)
Charter Review Board, District 4 Tom Trevor (REP)
Charter Review Board, District 5 John J. Fellin (REP)
Charter Review Board, District 5 John Scolaro (REP)
Charter Review Board, District 5 Kevin T. Connelly (NPA)

Eleven of the thirteen candidates running for Charter Review Board are Republicans. The composition of the CRB could dramatically change in 2012. There has been a string of emails from supporters of the Republican candidates running for the CRB that break down into two camps – the Republican old guard and new Republican conservatives’ favorites.

The Republican old guard candidates are: District #1 Anthony “Tony” Sawyer (R)  (past member of the Sarasota County Board of Zoning Appeals and past president of the Meadows HO Association); District #2 Donna Barcomb (R) (past (12 yr) member of the Sarasota Memorial Hospital Board); District #3 Fred Tower (R) (Past (8 yr) North Port City Commissioner); District #4 Mark Hawkins (R) (Member of Home Builders Assoc, Gulf Coast Builders Exchange and past candidate for Sarasota County Commission) and District #5 John Fellin (R)(past member (12+ yr) and Chairman of the Sarasota County Planning Commission). All of these old guard candidates have long term political records on County boards or local political positions. These candidates are supported by political operatives and four of the Sarasota County Commissioners.

An email supporting the old guard candidates, signed by Cathy Layton, Jud Boedecker, Frank Moore, Joe Barbetta, Christine Robinson, Carolyn Mason, Nora Patterson, Karen Rushing, Bill Furst, Caroline Zucker, Jane Goodwyn, Mollie Cardamone and Bob Waechter, states:

“The Sarasota County Charter Review Board (CRB) is the ONLY elected charter review board in the entire state. The only one. Its sole stated function in the Charter (Article II, Sec 2.8B) is to “review and recommend changes to the County Charter for improvement of County government”.

In most other jurisdictions a CRB is convened on an ‘as needed’ or ‘when needed’ basis. It was never intended to be an activist board nor was it envisioned as a vehicle to move forward the specific agendas of splinter groups. Yet this is exactly what is being attempted, the stacking of the CRB with a majority sympathetic to particular agendas.”

The new faces running for the CRB are: District 1 Paul A. Cajka Sr. (REP); District 1 H. Ross Gustafson (REP); District 2 Marie Nisco (REP); District 3 Pat Wayman (REP); District 4 Tom Trevor (REP); and District 5 John Scolaro (REP). All of these candidates are new to the political process and not career politicians.

The email from the old guard states, “[A] concerted effort by agenda-driven groups to load up the Charter Review Board in 2012 with the goal of placing in the county charter items that more properly belong in ordinances. Their aim is to do an end run around the elected County Commissioners in determining how Sarasota County is governed.” The agenda driven groups are not identified, however, some of the new Republican faces come from TEA Party and 912 affiliated groups in the county.

There is a process that allows for proposed amendments to be vetted by the CRB. Every proposed amendment has an agenda. Recently the Sarasota County Commissioners tried “to do an end run” around the people on term limits. In 1998 a charter amendment was overwhelmingly passed by the citizens to limit county commissioners to two four year terms. That amendment was challenged in a local court, by Frank Moore one of the old guard signatories, and overturned. However, in 2012 the Florida Supreme Court found term limits for county commissioners constitutional and this has caused Jon Thaxton to not seek re-election. Christine Robinson, Carolyn Mason and Nora Patterson were in favor of amending the amendment by changing the verbiage making the term limit not retroactive. This would have allowed Thaxton to run for his fourth term. This “end run” around the citizens was championed by Christine Robinson, Carolyn Mason and Nora Patterson, all of whom co-signed the old guard letter.

Kathy Bolam, former candidate for the CRB, in an email reply to Mr. Waechter notes he too has an agenda. Mrs. Bolam states, “Today, you are alerting the public to THE MOST IMPORTANT RACE IN SARASOTA COUNTY yet a few years back you went before the Charter Review Board with an Amendment to change the Charter Review Board Members to appointed rather than elected.  Fortunately for the citizens of Sarasota county, your efforts were thwarted.” Mrs. Bolam sent two letters addressing this issue and they may be read here and here.

The idea of a charter is to allow the people to determine how they are governed. The charter gives the people the power to determine if they will be governed by a Board of County Commission, as it does now, or change that to another form of government. A number of citizen proposed amendments to limit government and government spending have been brought before the CRB in the past year. None have moved to the ballot and some have died without even going to committee for review. This has led ordinary citizens to run for the CRB.

The battle lines are now drawn between the Republican old guard and the New Republican party supported by TEA Party activists. The race is heating up.