Message to the masses

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Our county commissioner Mark Smith addresses an audience both up close and on the radio in Q&A discussion with WSLR

By John Morton

Mark Smith, the Siesta Key resident who holds the District 2 Sarasota County Commission seat, took the stage Feb. 8 in a town hall meeting and faced some of his constituents in what was in part a Q&A format. The gathering, which drew about 30 residents, was moderated by Cathy Antunes, host of “The Detail” on WSLR and allowed for viewers/listeners to submit questions in advance.
It’s a show upon which anti-hotel advocate Siesta Key’s Lourdes Ramirez appeared in late 2021.
Smith was more than happy to participate, addressing issues and question that were both local-based for Siesta Key residents but mostly beyond our island. Smith’s turf runs primarily along the coast of Gulf of Mexico, from the county’s north border on University Parkway southward to where Stickney Point Road intersects Siesta Key. Heading inland, parts go as westward as McIntosh Road.

Mark Smith and Cathy Antunes tackle some Sarasota County issues. (submitted photo)

“I believe, as being a public official, that being accessible and communicating with the community is extremely important,” Smith said afterward. “The radio town hall was a great way for the public to ask questions and hear directly from me on subjects that are of concern to them.”
Among the subjects related to Siesta Key included the proposed hotels and the trend he has seen in being a lone vote on matters – a retort that drew a laugh from the crowd. His responses are in some cases edited for length and/or pertinence, but context is respected.
On the proposed hotels:
“What scares us all is that every community in Sarasota County – if you think you’re safe, if you think you’ve got everything under control, you’ve got to think about Siesta Key. In 1999 there was a community plan that was done with the county and the citizens, both commercial and residential on Siesta Key … on how we wanted to see Siesta Key both developed and basically preserved. … By the way, at that time, incorporation was being threatened … So, the Siesta Key Overlay District was developed based on that community plan. So, then you think ‘OK we’ve got a codified element that is going to keep things where we want it – scale, and that type of thing.’
“Then the developers come in and they want to do these hotels and they got the special exception that (resident) Lourdes (Ramirez) fought and won.
“So, if you think about it, if you’re a community and you think you’ve got it safe … they can contemplate changing the comp plan to make sure they get what they’re looking for.”
On the 4-1 votes:
“I’ve often been on the ‘1’ end of the 4-1 vote; it seems to be my mantra. When I run for re-election (in 2026), my motto’s going to be ‘I’m the 1.’”
More on the hotels:
“It bothers us all, and it should bother everybody in Sarasota County.
“Unlimited intensity, four hotels, up to 15% of the commercial property which I think is nonsense … the folks that own commercial property that aren’t in that lucky 15%, you think they’re going to sit back and say ‘Hold it, hold it?’ A camel under the tent thing.
“So, it’s going to look like (Fort) Lauderdale, or Miami Beach, or Clearwater before you know it. And we’ll lose the Village. I predicted we’ll lose the Village – I thought five years, but with this latest effort (brought forth by Benderson Development for an 85-foot hotel in the Village) it may be three.”
On the questions: “Do developers buy county commissioners? What can we do as citizens to elect better representation?”
In his response, Smith also addressed the challenges of representing more than his home base of Siesta Key.
“I spoke before the League of Women Voters, and they asked me what can we do when a commissioner votes the way we don’t want them to vote. And I said, well, let’s see – nothing. We have the power.
“You’re the League of Women Voters. So, you need to vet the candidates, look into their background, and see who they’ve worked with, and push it. We need to stop looking at elections like a sports event and determining who has the most money must be the best candidate. And that’s not the way it works. You need to find folks who have character and are grounded enough to not be tempted.
“Now, in full disclosure, developers did give me a lot of money to win. I’m not sure that’s going to happen for re-election. But I told them what my thinking was when they were interviewing me to see if I was worthy and I told them that I didn’t like the big hotels on Siesta Key and Siesta Promenade didn’t thrill me. But I think it was the lesser of evils, perhaps.
“I won, and thank you to all the folks who voted for me … I had to convince the neighborhoods in Sarasota that a Republican architect on Siesta Key gave a damn, so that’s been my mission, Esther and I, my wife, to go to very community that invites us.”
Finally, on his desire to see county-mandated neighborhood workshops (allowed to be virtual during the COVID-19 days) return to an in-person format:
“I’ve made that fight; I haven’t been successful. You need to express to the folks in power that they shouldn’t have any problem meeting with neighborhoods.
The (Benderson Development-related) hotel virtual workshops were a joke. It was shut off, there were miscommunications.
“It epitomized what’s wrong these virtual workshops that are supposed to allow more people to join in.”

John Morton
Author: John Morton

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