A blog dealing with Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Long Blog Posting About Sarasota County Term Limits

No one would deliberately shoot someone to create a portal to the stomach. But when Alexis St. Martin was accidentally shot in the stomach on June 6, 1822, he provided medical science with a literal window into human digestion. Likewise popsicles, chocolate chip cookies, and tofu are all rumored to exist as the result of unintended culinary mishaps. 

And no one would deliberately design an experiment to see what would happen if a community decided to have a rule preventing third and fourth terms and then somehow set the rule aside to see what would happen.

But that is what happened. In a primary election in 1998, Sarasota voters voted to prevent county commissioners from serving more than two terms consecutively. That charter amendment was challenged and a court ruled it should not be enforced. That created a situation where there was a clear mandate (greater than two to one), but no implementation or enforcement. How did the electorate react and what were the consequences? Would voters self-implement the charter amendment or behave in a contrary manner?

The same year as the passage of the charter amendment, and shortly thereafter, David Mills was elected to a third term in the general election. Term limit advocates might have predicted that because part of the rationale for term limits is to eliminate the incumbency advantage. But term limit opponents tend to view that second vote as calling into question the sincerity of the charter amendment vote because while voters signaled they were turning one way, they jerked the steering wheel in the opposite direction. Also in the '98 elections Nora Patterson beat an incumbent, Jack O'Neil in the Republican primary. That seemed like evidence that incumbents could, in fact, be beaten.

In the 2000 elections for Districts 3 and 5, both second termer Staub (who had beaten an incumbent in the '96 primary) and newcomer Thaxton were unopposed in the general election. Term limits would not have affected either situation -- the Democrats simply failed to provide alternatives. In District 1 Paul Mercier beat Fredd Atkins after Ray Pilon decided not to run after a single term -- more evidence that seeking a second term is not as automatic as assumed.

In 2002 Patterson secured a second term with no opposition -- again a situation that term limits would not have addressed and David Mills was also unopposed -- walking to a fourth term. Had term limits been enforced, this would have been an open seat, but it is not clear the Democrats would have challenged -- after all they failed to contest open seats in '96 (Staub) and '98 (Thaxton).

IN 2004 Mercier and Thaxton were unchallenged for second terms and Staub was unchallenged for a third. If the electorate really was against third terms the Democrats should have been able to run almost anyone and secure a win. But Staub was unchallenged.

In 2006 Mills called it quits after 4 terms (at least since the 60s there has only been one five term commissioner: Bob Anderson) and Barbetta was elected with no challengers. Patterson ran for a third term and, again, If the electorate really was against third terms the Democrats should have been able to run almost anyone and secure a win. But Patterson went unchallenged.

In 2008, Staub went for 4 and Thaxton for 3 with no opposition. There weren't even Republican primary challengers even though today we are told 97% of the Republican leadership supports a two term limit. In District 1 I announced my intention to run again Paul Mercier. He was a two term incumbent, but he had a record and, inspired by Staub and Patterson who had beaten incumbents, I thought I had a good chance. Instead I ended up running against Carolyn Mason and independent John Mullarkey and lost.

In 2010 Patterson went for 4, beat Smith in the primary and Democrat Hawkins in the general. If the public didn't like people going for 4, they certainly didn't vote that way. Patterson got 24% of all Sarasota citizens (not just voters) voting for her, which should be compared with the 8.45% of the county's citizens that voted for term limits in '98. Independent Cathy Antunes challenged Barbetta in a spirited race, but lost. Her vote count exceeded that of Hawkins, showing an Independent could be as successful as a Democrat. Also in 2010 Staub announced that she was not going to finish her fourth term. The embattled Governor appointed Christine Robinson.

So what can we learn from this accidental experiment in which the electorate said they did not want county commissioners to have third (or fourth) terms?

1) Incumbents don't always run and when they do, they don't always win.

2) Open seats (which would be the effect of commissioners term-limited) don't always lead to contested races. Thaxton, Staub, and Barbetta all won Republican primaries and then faced no Democratic opposition in the general election. The premise that open elections creates competition is obviously not necessarily true in Sarasota county where one party has held all commission seats since 1970.

3) Many commissioners serve two terms or less. Barbetta has announced he is stopping at two, joining Mercier. Pilon, O'Neil, Derr, Matthews, Hill, and Longino who all served two terms or less (and that is just in the last two dozen years). That's more than the number of commissioners in the same time period that served three or more terms.

4) Despite a 1998 explicitly voted intention to the contrary, voters regularly vote third and fourth terms to commissioners, even when contested in primaries and the general election. This reality erodes the contention that the electorate opposes third or fourth terms because in the case of Mills and Patterson there were both primary and Democratic opponents. It would have been easy to vote for their opponents.

In the 50's and 60's Democrats like Spanos, Warren, and Carey were still getting elected to the County Commission. For whatever reasons commissioners did not serve very long. I haven't looked at the data  before the mid-50's but starting in 1956 no commissioner served a third term until Brumbaugh and Rhodes did in 1974. So going back to a leadership pattern of one and two termers takes us back more than a half century to a time when the county population was somewhere around one seventh the size.

At some point, and for some reason, Democrats stopped being competitive candidates, or at least stopped getting elected. That functionally switched the question of who would govern to the Republican primary and (anecdotally at least) led many to register as Republican so that they might have a say in county leadership.

In 1998 some Sarasota County residents engaged in that government-abetted action to deprive us, fourteen years later, the ability to vote for the most experienced county Commission candidates -- those who had been serving most recently.

They did this by voting in the charter amendment that passed by more than 2 to 1 (68.22%). Particularly recently this clear outcome has been referred to online as the " will of the public" and the "will of the voters". Today, for instance a Tom Tryon editorial in the Sarasota Herald Tribune stated:

Well, 14 years ago, 68 percent of voters in Sarasota County supported a charter amendment to limit county commissioners to two consecutive terms (emphasis added). 

It is usually not recommended to quibble with editorial writers (the 'ol buying ink by the barrel argument), but I believe there is a significant difference between 68 percent of voters and 68 percent of those voting.

According to the Supervisor of Elections office there were 212,255 registered voters eligible to vote in that 1998 election. 68.22 percent of the registered voters would have been 144,800 voters or 46.5 percent of the entire estimated county population (311,023) at that time. Wow! Having nearly half the whole population of the county affirm a ballot measure would be a startling mandate.

But, that's not what happened. It was a primary election, an election in which less than one in five (19,26%) eligible voters (40,896) bothered to show up. And.... not all of them weighed in on the charter amendment -- something like 2,368 of those who went the the polls that day didn't express a preference. So the actual number of voters that constituted the 68 (point two two) percent was 26,384, which works out to 12.4% of the eligible voters at the time, or 8.45 percent of the estimated county population at the time (about one in twelve Sarasotans).

Now, it should be clear that if 68 (point two two) percent of the voters who actually weighed in on the measure liked the idea, then somewhere around 31 (point seven eight) percent (that's 12,244 voters) didn't really like the idea. So the people that tipped the balance and created this impressive juggernaut of destiny I keep hearing about, was actually 14,140 people -- which was about 6.66 percent of the registered voters or 4.54 percent of the county as a whole -- less than 1 in 20 Sarasotans made the difference on that measure.

Now I know that's how it works, you win by one vote, you win. But it is a little sobering to realize that only one in twelve Sarasotans actually contributed to what has been characterized as overwhelming approval -- to me it feels more like underwhelming approval.

But I have to admit, if that was the last word from the voters on the subject of their disapproval of people serving more than two terms, then it should be the final word (even though I think it would have been more considerate to us future voters to vote it in on a trial basis, say 12 years, with a sunset clause so that the public would have to reaffirm their support for the concept).

But it wasn't the last word. Because Sarasota participated in that hole-in-the-stomach inadvertent experiment in which the term limit mandate was set aside and voters were free to either implement their intentions regarding limit terms or pursue some other course.

As discussed above, several times since that primary, Sarasotans have approved commissioners seeking more than two terms. In fact, in a recent election held in 2010 there were 264, 382 registered voters (out of an estimated county population of 379,448). Now in the District 4 Commission race Nora Patterson was running for a fourth term. That wasn't a secret -- any marginally informed voter would have known she was elected in 1998 and that she was shooting for a fourth term in 2010, which is really coloring outside the lines if you believe two terms is enough.

So, based on the 68 (point two two) rule of thumb established in 1998, more than two thirds of the people voting in that race (137,499 total) should have said "No way, two was enough and three way too many and you are out of here, sister." So somewhere over 91,574 people should have said: no.

But the results were exactly opposite what one would have expected if the 1998 primary voters were any indication. Nora got 91,380, or 66 (point four eight) percent of the vote. And 91,380 was 24 percent of the estimated county population(379,448) at the time.

So to summarize, in a recent general election pretty darn close to one in four Sarasotans voted to give a commissioner a fourth term, while fourteen years ago one in twelve Sarasotans voting in a primary said two should suffice.

I can't really say which data is more compelling, there's a case to be made on either side, but I can say there is no clear-cut "will of the public" or "will of the voters" on local term limits. Some people, awhile ago, said two was enough, and others, more recently said, fine, go for four. Say one thing, do another. Perplexing. How could that be?

Now some will argue that is simply proof of the power of incumbency, or the effects of big money or negative ads to manipulate voters into voting contrary to their best interests. But those who believe in the infallibility of voters can't have it both ways.

The voters are either right (and sometimes contradictory) in every election or else we have opened the file folder labeled VOTER MISTAKES. Which is a dangerous folder to open because it creates the possibility the 1998 vote (among others) was not the result of an informed electorate carefully assessing a ballot measure and voting rationally, but possibly something else entirely. In other words, one can't argue we have to abide by evidence from 1998 and ignore subsequent data.

The most perplexing thing, then, about term limit advocates is their ability to simultaneously maintain that voters knew what they are doing when they imposed term limits, but not when (in our inadvertent, unexpected experiment) they went ahead and voted in third or fourth terms.

Perplexing because their central premise is that the 1998 voters have to be respected, but that subsequent actions of the voters have to be disrespected, because, to be blunt about it, term limit advocates know better than the voters.

I've been attacked online for the supposed pretentious sin of not respecting the will of the voters, when, in fact, as the experiment reveals, it is apparently term limit advocates who don't respect the will of the voters.

We now find ourselves in a situation where 26,384 voters (back in 1998) are controlling the behavior of more than ten times that number -- as of Mothers Day 2012 (May 12th) there are 267,725 registered voters in the county.

The will of the people as expressed in that 1998 election was ignored for a long time, but now the Florida Supreme Court has mandated that it be taken seriously and we are realizing the implications. It may or may not bring new blood. It may or may not help Democrats. But implementing term limits will do one thing for sure and that is let 12.4 percent of the registered voters in 1998 govern the behavior of 100 percent of present day voters.

Term limit advocates rail against a few people having too much power for too long. it is my contention that the few who have wielded too much power for too long are not the Commissioners of 2012 so much as the primary voters of 1998.