By Phil Colpas
About 75 people congregated at Siesta Chapel July 19 to listen to Sarasota Board of County Commission candidates discuss the issues ahead of the primary election Tuesday, Aug. 23.
In this forum, sponsored by The Island League, which comprises Save Siesta Key, Siesta Key Association, Siesta Key Coalition, Siesta Key Condominium Council and Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, candidates were given two minutes to answer each question in a Q&A series covering a variety of topics, most importantly how to maintain responsible, sustainable development. At the end, candidates were given two minutes to explain to Siesta Key voters why they should vote for them.
Absent from the forum was Joseph Neunder, Republican candidate for the District 4 seat. The remaining seven candidates took part: three Democrats and two Republicans for the District 2 seat; and one Democrat and one Republican for the District 4 seat. All will face off in the upcoming primary election.
Participating in the forum were: Running for the District 2 seat: Democrats Fredd “Glossie” Atkins, Hagen Brody and Mike Cosentino; and Republicans Lourdes Ramirez and Mark Smith.
Running for the District 4 seat: Republican Mike Hawkins and Democrat Daniel Kuether.
One of the hot button topics for voters: increasing traffic.
“A lot of times traffic studies just tell us what we already know. We need solutions,” Atkins said, suggesting that better communication between residents, visitors and employees would help to establish more accurate peak traffic times.
Brody said that peak times heading to and from the beach were most important to mitigate. “The trolley on the island is great, but we need trolleys to take people on and off the island,” he said. “I think people would use it if we do it right.”
Hawkins said the current county commission has failed us by not better controlling increasing traffic and allowing the Benderson complex to move forward at Stickney Point Road and U.S. 41. He would like to see a moratorium on new construction until the situation can be improved: “You can remodel, but you can’t add more traffic.”
“No new development is not how the world works, unfortunately,” said Kuether. “What we need are some real concessions and compromises. That’s how we get real quality solutions.”
Cosentino shared a story about growing up in Sarasota: “My eighth-grade math teacher at Brookside said, ‘Figures don’t lie, liars figure.’” By which he meant, “The usefulness of the (traffic) study is entirely predicated on who is conducting the study. We need to incorporate the island, self-govern and determine how to handle our own traffic.”
“If a developer does a traffic study, it’s going to be faulty,” agreed Ramirez, who has a long history fighting developers and sued the county against building one of its proposed Siesta Key hotels. Ramirez supports independent, third-party traffic studies, followed up on by open discussion with citizens.
Atkins agreed there is too much traffic and new development will create more traffic, suggesting it may be time for a fresh community plan. “The community needs to be able to stipulate their wants and needs in a comprehensive plan,” he said. “We have a jewel in Siesta Key.”
And how would candidates address the voters’ growing loss of faith in politicians?
“The first solution is not electing another Republican to the county commission,” Kuether said, suggesting that we need more forums where solutions are proffered, not just where problems are complained about.
Smith argued that a forum isn’t going to help if the data is faulty, “or you’ll just get the wrong answers again,” he said.
Through zoning problems and mismatch of usage, Brody said that it’s easy to see people’s frustration when you look at the number of civic groups that displeased citizens have formed.
Siesta Key generates 30 percent of the taxes in the county, Ramirez said. “We need to go in with the attitude that we’re important; we provide a lot of taxes, and you should pay attention to us.”
Atkins added that voters should “demand your respect” from the county. “To bemoan the process you all should be dictating is embarrassing,” he said, urging change. “For 50 years, there hasn’t been a Democrat out here on the county commission. Are you happy with the way it’s going?”
Cosentino said it’s not the voters’ imagination that they’re being ignored. “Our government doesn’t understand they represent us … and they don’t even, they represent development. Go downtown and look at all the buildings. If that’s what you want Siesta Village to look like, then Brody’s your guy.”
Brody, a longtime city commissioner, insisted he has a wide range of support, is independent and votes on issues.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you how independent this guy is,” said Atkins, who then accused Brody of installing his friend on the housing board the day before. “I’m a willing participant in this process,” Atkins continued. “I’m unbowed, not some masquerade, like he knows how to get to heaven when he’s sending everybody to hell.”
“There are only two kinds of candidates up here,” Cosentino said. “Developer sell-outs and people actually representing people.”
Hawkins accused Neunder, Republican candidate for the District 4 seat who did not take part in the forum, of taking more than $100,000 of developer money. “We need to get rid of commissioners put in place by developers,” he said.
Cosentino accused current county commission chair Alan Maio of being corrupt, and said that the county and state are being run by the development community at the cost of everyone else. “Every person loses,” he said. “We need a county run by and for the people, not developers.”
Hawkins, who grew up in Sarasota County, said that the county commission has abused our waterways. “They pumped a billion gallons of wastewater into Phillippi Creek, which spurs and grows red tide,” he said. “We must stop polluting our creeks and waterways; it’s our most valuable asset.”
“Marine restoration and maintenance of our waterways is most important,” Atkins agreed, adding that any other amenities aren’t much use without our pristine waterways.
Brody favors a comprehensive plan to take a look at our waterways.
“We take the environment as second place to everything else,” Kuether said. “We don’t pay attention to these things until it’s already a problem.”
Regarding the illegal short-term rental situation, Cosentino said code enforcement should be doing more to enforce the law.
Ramirez agreed, recommending establishing a dedicated code enforcement officer to focus solely on illegal short-term rentals.
“We cracked down on short-term rentals on Lido,” Brody said. “We created a process where you can pull the rental certificate and they can be punished. We also limited the amount of people you could rent to.”
Smith agreed that code enforcement needs to step up when it comes to regulating short-term rentals, especially due to the fact that too many people staying in these houses is a safety issue. “We need a registration program,” he said. “We need to limit parking and cut out the loopholes.”
A bit about the candidates:
Atkins (Democrat, District 2) is a longtime resident of Sarasota with a decades-long history of community activism. He is a former three-term mayor of Sarasota and served for several terms on the city commission, where he is proud of being instrumental in reinvigorating the downtown area. “I know how to work with people,” he said. “I want to be your county commissioner because I’m the best you got.”
Ramirez (Republican, District 2) is a longtime resident of Siesta Key and got involved in the community’s zoning issues because she saw developers getting away with whatever they wanted, often at the expense of ordinary citizens. She realized the only way to change things was to get more into politics, and is a former president of the Siesta Key Association and president of the Women’s Republican Club.
Smith (Republican, District 2) is an architect and longtime resident of Siesta Key who headed up the revitalization of Siesta Village in 2008 and is chair-elect of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. “We haven’t had strong leadership on the county commission for a long time,” he said. “I know how we could change certain code items to make it safer for our community. This is for Siesta Key, and that’s why I’m running.”
Cosentino (Democrat, District 2), longtime activist and resident of Siesta Key whose family started Cosentino Construction here in 1956, said that he would fight the overdevelopment that is so prevalent today, and that he was proud to get the endorsement of civic groups Control Growth Now and Women’s Voices of Southwest Florida.
Brody (Democrat, District 2) has been serving on the Sarasota City Commission for the past five years; his current term as at-large commissioner ends this year. He grew up in Sarasota, and is a former state prosecutor. “Siesta is different from Lido: Siesta is a flip-flops and board shorts kind of place,” he said, underscoring the importance of the differences. “The Siesta Key overlay district is important. There are ways that we can improve it.”
Hawkins (Republican, District 4) has been a general contractor for 30 years, and spent four years serving on the Charter Review Board. “I’m ok with development, but it must be responsible,” he said. “We’ve got to clean up our waterways and reduce homeowner taxes to give some money back to the people of Sarasota County.”
Kuether (Democrat, District 4) grew up on a working family farm in rural Ohio. He has worked in real estate, property management and development, and as a designer of leasing software. He moved here four years ago with his husband, who is a Sarasota native. “Sarasota works very well for a select few, but not for everybody,” Kuether said. “Developers are cheating the system without any pushback from the Republican commission.”