By John Morton
Save Siesta Key is retooling in a big way for another push.
The hiring of a new lobbyist group, with the possibly a second to follow, and the planned hiring of both a public relations firm and a polling organization are what are now in the game plan, chairman Tim Hensey said, as the incorporation group amps up for second filing in Tallahassee come Sept. 1 for what it hopes to result in Siesta Key becoming its own municipality, shaking its governance away from Sarasota County.
“We haven’t lost our passion,” said Hensey of the six-person group that was shot down in January by a 3-3 tie vote from the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation, which needed to support the idea before it could move on to state House and Senate votes and then a local majority referendum.
Now, with a second attempt going forward, the earliest Siesta Key could become its own town is Dec. 31, 2023.
And a renewed petition drive is chugging along, Hensey told the Siesta Key Association at its May 5 meeting, as well as a fundraising effort to collect $75,000 to pay for the new investments.
The 501(c)(4) non-profit had previously raised about $125,00, spending about $80,000.
Regarding another swing at incorporation in a moment of levity with Siesta Key Association members, Hensey said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” quoting Albert Einstein. “So, what are we doing different?”
For starters, Hensey said David Ramba of Tallahassee-based Ramba Law Group has been hired to serve as lobbyist for the next Florida Legislature session beginning next spring. Ramba won out after interviews with three firms that Hensey called “the most visible and respected lobbying firms in Tallahassee.”
Hensey, who spent a career as an executive in Florida’s construction business, reports that he and Ramba have a successful personal history while pursuing matters of mutual interest.
Ramba replaces Jon Moyle, who was recommended last year by the Florida League of Cities but who Hensey feared may have limitations because he’s a lifetime Democrat who would have been trying to influence a heavily Republican-weighted House and Senate.
“How effective can a Democrat be in that environment? Hensey said.
Recruitment of even a second lobbying firm could also shake out, Hensey said, considering the complex nature of reaching so many politicians.
“Everyone has their relationships, and they’re not all the same,” he said.
Next, a public relations firm will be hired to better convey the incorporation group’s message, and a polling organization will likely also be hired to gauge public interest. A measure in the past legislative session at the state capital that didn’t pan out noted that efforts of incorporation should present a straw poll that indicates strong interest, and Save Siesta Key members have gone on record to embrace that concept.
Best yet, Hensey reported, is that house-member redistricting maps have shaved the county’s legislative group from six to two – with the two biggest adversaries in the form of Will Robinson and Tommy Gregory no longer representing any Sarasota County turf.
Also gone is Michele Rayner, who represented just a bit of the northern county who did support the incorporation concept.
Robinson, the former delegation chairman objected, to the low .25 mill rate proposed by Save Siesta Key that he thought was too meager and also didn’t like the fact that part of the island’s northern edge included resident of Bay Island who reside within Sarasota city limits. Statutes note that there needs to be a buffer of at least 2 miles between an existing municipality and one that wants to incorporate, but history shows it’s often easily waived in incorporation matters.
“He hung his hat on that,” Hensey said of Robinson.
As for Robinson’s issue with the low mill rate, which would have initially resulted in a budget of about $3.75 million and covering the cost of five likely employees, Hensey said his group is discussing the possibility of raising that number “just a bit.”
He also said the proposed charter, which currently calls for five council members, could be switched to seven when re-filed.
Tommy Gregory was another delegation dissenter, saying he couldn’t support a tax increase – no matter that the proposed .25 mills would result in about $97 per year for the owner of a median-assessed-value home on the Key – and he also felt the number of petitions submitted at about 2,300 should have been higher considering Siesta Key has more than 7,200 registered voters.
While no threshold regarding petition numbers was ever made public by the delegation prior to its vote, Save Siesta Key is now pushing hard to reach a recommended 60% mark despite Gregory’s departure. Petitions can be downloaded and printed at savesiestakey.org (they must be signed by hand) and can be mailed to P.O. Box 35214, Sarasota, 34242. They are also available at the island’s two Davidson Drugs locations (Village and Southbridge Mall) where drop boxes exist.
Petitions previously signed are still valid, Hensey noted.
Not only registered voters (who qualify in that category by living on the Key at least six months one day per year, making that residence their homestead) are invited to sign petitions. Property owners and business owners on the Key are also considered legitimate.
A couple members of the audience at Hensey’s presentation suggested that Save Siesta Key post the names of petition signees on its website, to no doubt enforce name recognition amongst residents. Hensey said he’d take that idea to his board, and said his group’s ambassadors would not only be working the neighborhoods again but helping to conduct neighborhood meetings.
If a local referendum vote eventually emerges, only registered voters can cast a ballot.
Meanwhile, a newcomer to the delegation is state Rep. Mike Grant, whose District 75 includes a small portion of southeast Sarasota. Hensey said his group would soon be meeting with Grant and state Rep. James Buchanan – he represented the third no vote, voicing concerns about how the incorporation group would adequately fund the infrastructure-related projects it proposed, such as traffic studies, the creation of pedestrian and bike lanes, and island beautification.
As for state Sen. Joe Gruters and state Rep. Fiona McFarland, who also remain in the delegation and who represent Siesta Key most thoroughly in relation to territory, Hensey said a recent meeting with them further confirmed their ongoing support.
“We’re probably looking at a 3-1 vote,” Hensey said, “but not for sure.”
The final positive shift, Hensey said, involves the fact that House Speaker Chris Sprowls – who Hensey said was “iron clad no taxes, no new government, no matter what” – will be replaced in 2023.
State Rep. Paul Renner will have that role, and Hensey’s group has already contacted him with incorporation in mind.
“He said he would have an open mind,” Hensey reported, “if there are good reasons to do it.”
Finally, Hensey said Save Siesta Key would still like to play a role in interviewing and/or endorsing candidates for the Sarasota County Commission, where both seats up for grabs this November include Siesta Key turf, but the outcomes would unlikely curtail his group’s mission to self-govern.
“I’m not convinced we can just replace the commissioners and everything will be OK,” he said.