By John Morton
The Save Siesta Key incorporation team has made it clear it doesn’t want Sarasota County to rule the island. But now that it will remain under its control for at least the foreseeable future, its members are beginning to eye ways to influence the county leadership.
And, with two county commission seats up for grabs in November – both of which happen to include territory involving Siesta Key (District 2 for north half and District 4 for south half) – the team is hoping to get active in the election.
“Our intent going forward is to interview candidates individually, endorse certain candidates that we believe will support the interests of Siesta Key, and have a greater voice in the outcome of the elections,” said Tim Hensey, chairman of Save Siesta Key.
That desire was a discussion item during an informal meeting in late March that included Save Siesta Key, the Siesta Key Coalition, the Siesta Key Condominium Council, and the long-established Siesta Key Association. The four non-profit entities have teamed up several times to support one another and fight against what they feel is a reckless pro-development approach by the county commission — including the recent approval of the construction of two high-rise hotels.
Similarly, Siesta Key Association board member Jean Cannon said her group has begun to discuss the idea of hosting candidate forums related to the election. She said it has occasionally done so in the past, most recently held at Gulf & Bay Club in connection to Margaret Good’s state representative run in 2018.
Regarding Save Siesta Key, as a 501(c)(4) entity its primary focus cannot be to influence political campaigns. It can endorse candidates but can’t contribute to any financially.
With that in mind, Hensey has said the formation of a political action group, known as a PAC, may be a necessary step for island residents.
A PAC’s chief purpose is to pool money together from its members and contributors to support a particular candidate or political issue.
“On Siesta Key we are never going to get where we want to get until we get out wallets behind our voice and actually take some action,” Hensey said on Feb. 3 while speaking to members of the Siesta Key Association, adding that Save Siesta Key is “probably not the entity” that will get things to change at the county level.
The comments came one month after the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation shot down the Save Siesta Key incorporation bill before it ever got to Tallahassee for consideration by the house and senate.
Hensey, who recently retired as an executive in the construction industry, participated in several PACs during his career and even ran the second-largest PAC in Florida over the course of five years, he told Siesta Key Association members.
City makes mayor decision
Meanwhile, a recent decision by the city of Sarasota’s commissioners to not go with a “strong-mayor” form of government may have further diminished the potential of Siesta Key being annexed into the city.
In January a few days after the delegation vote ended the first Save Siesta Key incorporation effort, Sarasota Mayor Erik Arroyo said he’d ask Siesta leaders to consider joining the city. In February, representatives from the four non-profits met with Arroyo for what Hensey called a very general, preliminary discussion. This, despite the fact the incorporation group had said it had no interest in such an idea and planned to immediately try for incorporation a second time. No follow-up meetings between Siesta and the city have taken place.
The city’s mill rate of 3.13 was among the reasons for doubt. Save Siesta Key’s proposal that was shot down called for a .25 mill rate – a staggering difference for taxpayers.
Then, the city commission on March 28 voted 4-1 to keep its existing government structure in place, rejecting a recommendation by a charter review committee to instead have a mayor elected separately by the populace. The mayor currently serves as one of five elected commissioners – three by district and two at-large – and is selected annually by a vote among the five who have seats. Had the elected mayor suggestion been approved for a referendum vote and then passed, there was speculation that a commission spot could be made available and possibly even earmarked for a Siesta Key representative, if indeed annexation took place.
Gregory move may have impact
Another event that could impact the Save Siesta Key effort is the upcoming relocation of state Rep. Tommy Gregory, who cast one of the three votes against incorporation.
Gregory, the current District 73 rep, is moving from eastern Sarasota County near Fruitville Road to Lakewood Ranch, which will place him in the newly redrawn District 72 that is made up mostly of eastern Manatee County.
It allows him to avoid running for re-election against fellow delegation member James Buchanan, a fellow Republican who currently represents District 74.
Buchanan also voted against incorporation.
As a result, Gregory will no longer represent Sarasota County, and thus will no longer serve the local delegation.
Will it help turn the tide?
“I’m hopeful,” said state Sen. Joe Gruters when asked about the future of Siesta Key’s incorporation bid at the April 7 meeting of the SRQ Tiger Bay Club luncheon.
Gruters was one of four Sarasota County legislators who spoke during the club’s annual legislative update panel discussion. Joining Gruters were state reps Fiona McFarland, Will Robinson, and Gregory.
Robinson was the third no-vote regarding incorporation. McFarland (the bill’s sponsor), Gruters and Rep. Michele Rayner voted yes.
Rodkin comes on board
With both another incorporation effort and a voice in the county elections on the road map, Save Siesta Key has continued to bolster its board after three departures came after the delegation’s rejection.
The newest addition is Gary Rodkin, a retiree on the Key’s south end. The recipient of an MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, Rodkin is past CEO and president of ConAngra Foods, one of the largest food-processing companies in North America. He was also CEO and president of the North American division of PepsiCo.
“Gary Rodkin is a great addition to our board on multiple fronts,” Hensey said. “First of all, as a resident of Sanderling Club he experiences the traffic logjam at the intersections of Midnight Pass and Stickney Point, and Stickney Point and U.S. 41, on a daily basis. It is more than inconvenience — it threatens the safety of our residents and visitors.
“Secondly, Gary’s professional accomplishments, as past CEO of a Fortune 500 company, demonstrate his expertise in leadership, strategic thinking, public speaking, written communication and management of people and process that would be a benefit to virtually any board or organization. We are very fortunate to have him join our ranks”
Rodkin said his interest in the incorporation effort echo those of the other board members, simply rooted in being a frustrated resident.
“I’m not sure I have any particular skills beyond being a concerned citizen,” he said. “I do have good insights into understanding complex issues, and formulating pragmatic solutions, from a long career in leading large public corporations.
“As a long-time resident, I was motivated to join Save Siesta Key to help give the people of Siesta Key a voice in determining how our community is governed. For years many local groups, organizations, and individuals have expressed deep concerns with the continuing overdevelopment and densification of our island. Yet it continues unabated. This has led to major traffic, safety, and environmental issues that will get even worse in the future. The integrity of our rules and regulations is ignored, as the money interests of the few completely override the very real concerns of the residents who must live with the consequences.
“We have had a home on Siesta Key since 1995. At that time, we couldn’t believe we were able to work and live in such a beautiful paradise. We have watched, especially in the last five years, how much this has changed. There are many things that could be done to improve this situation before it’s too late. I know that virtually every citizen of Siesta Key agrees. Our elected officials need to start listening.”
Rodkin joins island resident Jodie Tierney as the board’s newcomers, who joined in February. She has extensive experience as a lobbyist in being the director of state government affairs with Neurocrine Biosciences. She also was an executive with UnitedHealth Group and worked with the Wisconsin State Assembly.
Save Siesta Key’s board members are now Hensey, Rodkin, Tierney, John Davidson, Stephen Lexow, and Tracy Jackson.
Original members who have left the board are Rick Munroe, Harry Anand, Chuck Byrne, and Lisa Choate.
Save Siesta Key launched its organization in March of 2021 and has raised nearly $125,000.