Last November, Sarasota County voters very decisively demonstrated a desire for their Board of Commissioners to undo one thing it had done, refrain from another thing it wanted to do, and never do either of them again. Ever.
A charter amendment prohibiting the county from selling or transferring public parks or preserves won a 70% approval, while 65% said yes to reopening a portion of Beach Road on Siesta Key that commissioners had voted to vacate in 2016.
Because we all love public access to green space and beaches, both of these seemed, at first blush, like swell ideas.
But late last month a 12th Judicial Circuit Court judge confirmed the county’s challenge to these measures, agreeing that they violate the county charter and state law.
No matter how popular the cause might be, wrote Circuit Court Judge Hunter W. Carroll, if a charter amendment in support of that cause 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.”
County resident Mike Cosentino, who spearheaded both amendments and whose lawsuit against the county over Beach Road was consolidated into this case, is on record as saying he will appeal the judge’s decision.
We hope he does. This is a question that begs for clarification at the highest possible judicial level, as more citizen activists armed with time, money and conviction resort to creative pathways when they don’t like the way our elected officials have chosen to act.
Carroll’s opinion is full of incident, trying to clarify a tangled narrative of suits and countersuits involving Cosentino, the county and Beach Road property owners. But then he narrowly ruled on the county’s motion to find the amendments unconstitutional.
Sarasota County’s charter, unlike some others in the state, vests all legislative power in its board of commissioners, Carroll noted, calling the two amendments an “attempt to evade the charter’s express command.” He also agreed with the county that Florida Statutes give commissioners authority to close roads and renounce rights to public land.
“All political power is inherent in the people,” Carroll wrote. “The people in Florida have adopted the Florida Constitution, and the people in Sarasota have adopted the Sarasota Charter. These documents provide the foundation for our freedoms, and they are the rules the Court must apply.”
We all have opinions on what our elected officials should do, and plenty to say about where they have gone wrong. But that doesn’t mean that we as citizens want to — or should — turn ourselves into legislators by means of the secret ballot.
Citizen-initiated amendments are here to stay, for good reason. As we noted recently on this page, when a governing body “refuses to respond to calls for change — that, say, expand rights or protect common values in issues ranging from public education to environmental protection — the ability of the people to steer public policy should be valued and protected.”
But there’s a difference between telling our commissioners how to do their jobs, and making those jobs all but impossible to do.
The Herald-Tribune Editorial Board