February 25, 2015 / Volume XXXVII / Issue 2
Sarasota is governed by five city commissioners, two are elected at-large and the remaining three are elected from single-member districts. On March 10, a local election will be held to appoint a city commissioner for district two – the district that New College falls under. Candidates Liz Alpert and David Morgan will challenge incumbent Eileen Normile.
City commissioners are responsible for implementing policy, recommending policy changes and action, and acting as a liaison between the city and the community. During the campaign cycle, candidates have focused on issues such as city finances, local development projects and homelessness in the community.
“This is the level of government that people will often see, face-to-face, on a scale that they will understand,” Professor of Political Science Keith Fitzgerald said. “The issues at the city level are concrete, and they are the kind of things that affect how people live.”
Despite the fact that city commissioners play a direct role in shaping the city’s policies on major issues, past elections have always had a dismally low voter turnout. In the 2013 election, less than 20 percent of registered voters cast their ballots, and the last election for district two was decided by only 14 votes.
“There’s a very simple way to combat [low voter turnout], and that is to put the city election on the same day as the general election in November,” Fitzgerald said. Along with increasing voter turnout, this move could save the city more than $120,000, yet there remains much resistance.
“People who like it the way it is, will make arguments that the low voter turnout is actually a good thing because then you only have high-information voters,” Fitzgerald explained. The vote-by-mail program is helping to counter this. “People inform themselves when they know an election is coming up,” Fitzgerald said. When citizens receive ballots in the mail they are both informed of the upcoming election and given the opportunity to research candidates while they go over the ballot at home.
“Vote-by-mail is not only improving the number of people who participate but also the amount of information people have when they vote,” Fitzgerald said.
Below are brief profiles on each candidate including background and platforms.
Liz Alpert graduated from the University of South Florida in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications. She later earned a law degree from Stetson University. Alpert started her own law firm in Sarasota in 2007, specializing in family law. Alpert has worked on the City of Tampa’s Architectural Review Board and City Ordinance Revision Committee, as well as the City of Sarasota’s Human Relations Board. She currently serves on the Civil Service and General Personal Board of Sarasota.
Alpert decided to run for city commissioner after attending a public meeting on bayfront redevelopment. Up to 75 acres of property are up for a redevelopment project sponsored by the booster group Bayfront 20:20. Alpert wants to be a part of the important decisions related to the project.
“It’s going to affect the future of the city for decades to come,” Alpert said to the Sarasota Herald Tribune. Alpert promises to ensure that the needs of the Van Wezel and the Sarasota Orchestra are met throughout the project and hopes to create a park, accessible to all citizens, overlooking the bay.
On the issue of homelessness, Alpert has said that she will advocate for increasing the number of Homeless Outreach Teams comprised of one police officer and one mental health counselor.
When asked how New College students would benefit from her election Alpert said, “One of the things that I want to work on is bringing the kinds of jobs here that will keep graduates here once they graduate. Rather than service jobs, bring some clean energy jobs and research facilities so that we can retain all students once they graduate.”
David Morgan is a native Floridian and the current Chairman of the Sarasota Housing Authority. Morgan has professional experience providing training, policy creation and consulting services on affordable housing and housing and urban development (HUD) programs and has helped create policies for public housing across the country. Morgan serves on the board of both the Arlington Park Neighborhood Association and the Florida Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.
If elected city commissioner Morgan hopes to address homelessness in the community by “supporting programs with proven track records,” partner with the city to become more competitive for federal grants, and tackle the lack of affordable housing in the area – an issue he is particularly passionate about due to his work with the Sarasota Housing Authority.
When asked how New College students would benefit from his election Morgan said, “One of the things I find that we always talk about is how to keep our young professionals here in Sarasota, and I think the most important thing we can do is bring affordable housing to the area and jobs for recent graduates.”
Eileen Normile worked as a criminal prosecutor as head of the Domestic Violence Unit at the Union County Prosecutors Office in Elizabeth, New Jersey before retiring and moving to Sarasota in 2008. Normile has since served on the board and as president of the Bird Key Homeowners’ Association. She was also a member of the city’s Police Advisory Panel and became the panel’s chair in 2014.
Normile’s website says that she hopes to create “a meaningful quality of life for all residents; an environment that allows our arts, business and culture to survive; responsible collaborative decision-making; and sound financial stewardship.”
Normile has told the Sarasota Herald Tribune that she plans to look at the “legal options” in managing the problems of chronically homeless population downtown.
Eileen Normile could not be reached for comment.