Incorporation bill receives unanimous approval of one committee before being ignored and fading away; Save Siesta Key wants answers
By John Morton
It was like making the show but never seeing the stage. Indeed, Save Siesta Key had what one could call the “green room” experience from hell as members of the team seeking incorporation of the island watched its House Bill 923 sit in limbo for more than five weeks before fading away into nothingness during the recent meeting of the Florida Legislature that concluded May 5.
How this bewildering development, or lack thereof, took place is unknown but the board members, who waited two years and spent more than $265,000 to get to this point, will now be seeking answers.
Most puzzling of all was how the bill, assigned to three committees in advance of what would be votes by the House and Senate pending their approvals, shot out quickly with flying colors. On March 29, the Local Administration, Federal Affairs & Special Districts Subcommittee voted 17-0 in favor of it, with the Ways & Means Committee and State Affairs Committees up next. But, despite what appeared to be plenty of breathing room on the calendar, those committees never put the matter on their agenda.
The Ways & Means Committee’s vice-chairman happens to be state Rep. James Buchanan, the Osprey resident and former Siesta Key resident who represents District 74. As a member of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation, he twice voted against the local incorporation effort — in January 2022 when he cited a lack of money in the proposed budget for infrastructure in what would be a 3-3 vote in defeat, and again in January 2023 as the lone no vote when he cited his lack of comfort with the island’s proximity to the city of Sarasota in what would be a 3-1 vote in favor of the bill moving forward.
Did Buchanan play a role in keeping the bill off the committee’s agenda?
He was asked that question by the Siesta Sand in an email but had not responded by press time.
Buchanan is also a member of the State Affairs Committee, where another vote was needed.
Meanwhile, by the time April 28 came and went, leaving just five session days left with four votes needing to take place, the white flag was being waved. On that day, Save Siesta Key chairman Tim Hensey began to notify supporters of an outcome that has him perplexed.
“What we have learned from consultants is that bills that are not in favor with leadership typically never get heard in any committee. So, it is a little out of the ordinary that we passed the first committee unanimously and then stalled,” he said.
Could the lack of action have been simply a matter of time getting away?
“We will meet with legislative leadership this summer to see if we can get answers as to why our bill stalled,” Hensey said. “It is possible, with a seven-week schedule, they just ran out of time and had to prioritize. Based on what we learn, we will make a decision if a third try has any merit.”
State Rep. Fiona McFarland, the bill’s sponsor who represents Siesta Key in District 73, is chalking-up the lack of an outcome to that idea of a time crunch.
“More than 1,800 bills were filed this year, and while we had strong support for House Bill 923 time simply ran out for our initiative to be heard in its two final committees, as is required for passage,” McFarland said. “Thank you to Save Siesta Key Inc. supporters who made their voices heard through local meetings events, emails, and phone calls throughout this process.”
Officially, the bill died in the Ways & Means Committee, as far as legislative records are concerned.
The lack of any action does not mean the incorporation subject is tabled. It would require, by law, a re-filing that includes what would be a third revision and submission of an application and feasibility study due by Sept. 1 for consideration for the 2024 legislative sessions beginning in January – an early start as the result of it being an election year.
“Updating the study for dates and figures where appropriate, and new election dates. No need to revise the narrative,” Lynn Tipton with the Florida League of Cities said of the process. “The Legislature does not carry anything over. It also means scheduling your delegation again.”
That Sarasota County Legislative Delegation will likely be made up of the same members again, seeing as 2023 is not an election year. Only another round of redistricting or resignations could potentially change that.
New member Michael Grant, who represents part of the county’s southern portion in District 75, had his favorable vote in January contingent on the insistence that any local referendum (representing the measure’s final step) be held during the November 2024 general election instead of a special election, where turnouts are consistently higher.
Thus, one thing the inaction in Tallahassee does not do is alter any local voting date.
The state’s only other attempt for incorporation this year suffered an even worse fate, one could argue, as an attempt to create a Village of Loxahatchee in Palm Beach County never received any committee vote of any kind despite being assigned the same path as Siesta Key.
Not since 2018 has a new municipality in Florida been created, it coming in the form of Indiantown in Martin County. That year an incorporation effort by Hobe Sound, also in Martin County, also made it through the legislature but was shot down by local voters in a subsequent referendum.
In 2020, an incorporation effort was presented by the Town of Preservation in Orange County but received no support at the committee level.
As for Save Siesta Key, it arrived at the capitol this spring with its guns blazing – on its payroll were two Tallahassee-based lobbying groups (David Ramba, hired last year, and the Vogel Group, hired shortly before the sessions) along with a Tallahassee-based public relations firm called On 3.
According to Steve Lexow, treasurer with Save Siesta Key, the lobbyist groups were being paid $8,500 per month and the public relations firm $5,000 per month. It also had $25,000 set aside for marketing various lawmakers had the bill passed through the committees and hit the House and Senate for votes. That money, of course, was never spent.
At this moment, Lexow said the Save Siesta Key coffers show a slight deficit of $1,128 – a number that will likely go to zero seeing as the specialists on board will not be doing any work for a month or so until they are likely called upon examine the circumstances that killed the incorporation bill.
“Financially, we are right where we want to be,” said Lexow, noting that any fundraising at the moment would be awkward. “We need to know if there’s any point in trying this again. We need some positive news as an impetus.”
What would a third swing at the mission likely cost?
Lexow said his group would likely re-engage the same players at the same rates, including consultant Bill Underwood who would be tweaking and resubmitting the feasibility study. Lexow said a range of $10,000 to $25,000 would be earmarked for that.
In adding it all up, “I’d say we’re looking at about $100,000,” Lexow said.