Save Siesta Key keeps progressing

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The Save Siesta Key group did not hold a public meeting in June, but it continues to garner petition signatures and raise money toward its Sept. 1 deadline to apply in Tallahassee for incorporation.

Currently, Siesta Key is governed by Sarasota County.

As of June 25, 500 signatures of support by island residents who are registered voters here had been collected, according to board member Tracy Jackson. At least 10% of the residents must sign their names in the form of a petition, per the application process.

A recent feasibility study, required by the state as also part of the incorporation application, found the island’s population of residents to stand at 8,915 as of 2020.  Therefore, the percentage threshold for petitions has not yet been reached.

Jackson said that reaching all residents, many of whom may be snowbirds, has been challenging. She said her group is working with the Siesta Key Condominium Council in an attempt to track-down everyone.

From the incorporation group’s savesiestakey.org website, petitions can be downloaded for printing and handwritten signature. Electronic petitions aren’t allowed.

The petition categories on the website are resident, business owner, and non-resident property owner. While the petitions of only official residents of Siesta Key (more than half the year) are considered in the application process, the Save Siesta Key group seeks as many petitions as possible to demonstrate what it hopes is widespread support.

“We’ve heard from many people who own property or businesses on the Key, who pay taxes here, and they want their voices heard,” Jackson said. “Our goal is to reach 2,000 petitions in total.”

Petitions can be delivered to either Davidson’s Drugs locations (in the Village and Southbridge Mall) or by mail at P.O. Box 35214, Sarasota, FL 34242.

Petitions will also be available at the next Save Siesta Key public meeting, set for 7 p.m. July 22 at Siesta Key Chapel, 4615 Gleason Ave., in the northern part of the Key.

Meanwhile, the Save Siesta Key website reports that $75,894, via 91 donations, had been collected as of June 25 toward the group’s goal of $125,000. The donations pay for the feasibility study and the creation of a town charter, which serves as a municipality’s guiding document.

The group did meet privately in early June with two key players from Fort Myers Beach’s first days of incorporation, which came Dec. 31, 1995. Marsha Segal-George, the former town manager, and John Gucciardo, her deputy, discussed the challenges they faced and what policies and procedures they implemented.

The two will also be speaking at the July 22 public meeting.

Among the steps for early success, they said, was the creation of several volunteer-based advisory committees that helped the town council. In many cases, Gucciardo said, they served as a steppingstone for residents who later ran for an elected position.

When Fort Myers Beach became a town, more than 20 candidates vied for five at-large council seats, they noted.

Segal-George, who is now city attorney for Deltona (which coincidentally also incorporated in 1995), suggested several experts who could help Save Siesta Key with a charter and, if approved by the Florida Legislature and then a majority of local voters, create a comprehensive plan for the new town.

However, she reminded group of the importance of having strong support at the state level through the delegation that represents Siesta Key.

“It doesn’t matter how impressive your study is or how nice and shiny your charter looks,” she said. “You need someone to believe in you in Tallahassee.”

State Rep. Fiona McFarland will likely be that person, the board hopes. The members said they’ve spoken with her and plan to soon meet with her.

The Legislature convenes in January. If Siesta Key gets the green light through a special act at the state level, a special referendum vote locally would likely take place in March. Approval there is the final step, with election of council members to follow during the November general election.

The earliest Siesta Key could become a town is Dec. 31 of next year.

Bill Underwood, a government consultant, has been hired to produce the feasibility study. The charter’s author has yet to be determined by the incorporation group.

John Davidson, the group’s chairman, has said that Save Siesta Key is modeling its effort after Fort Myers Beach’s “Government Lite” approach – an expression that Segal-George actually coined. Its concept is to have a limited number of employees and outsource many services, such as police protection, while electing a town council to only set policy while a town manger handles the administrative duties of running a town hall.

Her strategy has even been published on an international level, she said.

Under Government Lite, the council itself elects the mayor. The mayor’s role is mostly ceremonial and consists of the same power as the other council members.

The opposite approach is to have a “strong mayor,” elected separately by the populace, to run the municipality — an approach that Save Siesta Key board member Harry Anand has said he supports. He served as mayor of a town on New York’s Long Island and has noted that his status as a strong mayor was critical in tapping into resources during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.

The seven other board members, however, have stated they lean toward the town manager-led method.

Either way, Gucciardo suggested that Save Siesta Key make use of the Florida League of Cities for future advice. Its annual convention is Aug. 12 through 14 in Orlando, and Gucciardo recommended that board members should interact with leaders of other municipalities in the hotel lobby. Especially those from barrier islands, where government life can be unique.

“If you see anyone with the words ‘beach’ or ‘island’ on their nametag, you’ll want to pick their brains,” he said.

John Morton
Author: John Morton

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