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Sarasota hospital board candidates will kick off a series of League of Women Voters forums

Crowd of people attend a meeting. A woman addresses them from a podium. A slideshow in the background says "The Sarasota Memorial Hospital Board: Understanding the System."
League of Women Voters of Sarasota County
More than 100 people attended a panel discussion hosted by the League of Women Voters of Sarasota County on April 8 about how the county's public hospital board operates. Organizers say that's why they felt it was important to host a candidates forum.

Interest in the public hospital board has grown since the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a "medical freedom" movement. The July 11 forum features Republican candidates, the only ones competing in the August primary.

Republicans competing in the Aug. 20 primary election for Sarasota's public hospital board will share their platforms during a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Sarasota County on Thursday.

The nine-member board oversees the Sarasota Memorial Health Care System, a major medical provider in the county that runs hospitals, outpatient clinics and other health services.

It is one of the only hospital boards in Florida whose members are elected by the public, noted league president Shawn Bartelt.

"So this is a very, very rare situation," she said, adding that many new residents to Sarasota may not realize this is how their local health system operates.

There are four seats open for election this year, including three at-large positions and one for the Central District.

More attention on the hospital board

The hospital board had a relatively low-profile until it made national news in 2022, when three candidates who criticized how Sarasota Memorial handled the COVID-19 pandemic were elected on "medical freedom," also known as “health freedom,” platforms.

Since then, some board meetings have drawn large crowds with a mix of attendees supportive of the hospital’s policies, and others who express distrust with Sarasota Memorial and question the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines.

An internal independent report finds Sarasota Memorial patients fared better than most during the pandemic in Florida and nationwide. Calls from critics for further investigation failed.

More recently, the board shot down a proposal in May for the hospital to officially embrace Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo’s guidance against mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. Even the member who originally proposed the idea, Victor Rohe, agreed to table it.

The League of Women Voters in Sarasota County, which has long hosted candidate forums, doesn’t usually focus on hospital board elections at its events, said Bartelt. But after an April 8 panel discussion on how the board operates drew more than 100 attendees, organizers felt there was clear demand to do more.

“We just felt that voters really wanted more information, they really wanted to know about the candidates, what their positions are and everything else,” Bartelt said.

Topics that moderators at the forum will likely ask candidates about include what Sarasota Memorial has done well and what could be improved, what “medical freedom” means to them and how to plan for growth in the county, said Bartelt.

Who's running this year?

There are eight Republicans vying for the four open seats, including more “medical freedom” candidates. There are also four Democrats and some write-in candidates running, but not in the primary.

Florida has closed primaries, so only registered Republicans will determine who in their party will move on to the general election.

If two “medical freedom” candidates win, there could be a majority on the board who share similar ideologies, though the current three members do not always agree with one another or vote the same way.

The following candidates are running for the hospital board as of July 9:

Republicans Sharon Wetzler DePeters (an incumbent) and Tamzin Rosenwasser will compete in the primary for At-Large Seat 1. The winner will face Democrat Alan Sprintz in November along with write-in candidates Ethan Garrett, Suzanne Hatatah and Jennifer Lee Zambrano.

Republicans Kevin Cooper and Stephen Guffanti will face off in the primary for At-Large Seat 2. The winner will go up against Democrat John Lutz in November, along with write-in candidate Donna Hurlock.

Republicans Pam Beitlich and Mary Flynn O'Neill, the sister of former Trump administration national security advisor Michael Flynn, will compete in the primary for At-Large Seat 3. The winner will face Democrat George Davis in November, along with write-in candidates Emilio Carlesimo and Curt Erlandson.

Republicans Sarah Lodge (an incumbent) and Tanya Parus will face off in the primary for Central District Seat 1. The winner will go up against Democrat Vicki Lynn Nighswander in November, along with write-in candidate Barbara Miller Vaughn.

Here's how you can attend the hospital board forum and check out other election events

Because only Republican candidates will appear on the primary ballot, the league only invited those individuals to speak at this week’s forum, which will be held on Thursday, July 11 from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Jacaranda Library in Venice. Six candidates have agreed to attend.

The event will be available to livestream, and a recording will be posted afterwards.

Other candidates are welcome to attend as audience members, said Bartelt, and the league will invite everyone appearing on the November ballot to speak at another forum later this year.

Democratic candidates had the opportunity to share their platforms during a virtual forum hosted by the Longboat Key Democratic Club on July 9.

The Sarasota Tiger Bay Club also hosted forums in June. A Democratic candidate attended one of those events. 

In addition to the hospital board forum this month, the League of Women Voters of Sarasota County will also host a forum for school board candidates on Wednesday, July 17, from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Jacaranda Library.

Primary elections typically have low voter turnout, lamented Bartelt. Many may not realize the Sarasota school board races are usually decided during the August primary, so she urged residents not to miss their chance to get involved.

“Everyone needs to vote in the August primary, their vote is their voice,” she said.

A virtual forum scheduled for July 22 for Republican primary candidates running for County Commission Districts 1 and 3 was cancelled on July 19 because the League said only one candidate, Alexandra Coe, agreed to participate. Tom Knight declined the invitation, while neither Neil Rainford nor Teresa Mast responded, Bartelt wrote in a statement.

"When candidates refuse to attend or participate, they lose the opportunity to express their views and explain their positions on key issues. For voters, a candidate’s absence creates a vital information gap – and it also raises suspicions about the candidate’s reluctance to be heard,” she stated.

Updated: July 19, 2024 at 1:09 PM EDT
This story was updated on July 19, 2024 to reflect the cancellation of a forum for county commission candidates.
I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.