By Jane Bartnett
Mike Cosentino and Mark Smith, Siesta Key residents and primary candidates for the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners seat for District 2, appeared on the Sarasota Tiger Bay Club’s candidates panel during a luncheon on July 7 at Michael’s on East.
They were joined by fellow District 2 candidates Fredd Atkins, a former county commissioner, and Hagen Brody, a current at-large city of Sarasota commissioner.
Cosentino, Atkins and Brody are on the Democratic ticket.
Siesta Key resident Lourdes Ramirez, who is running on the Republican ticket against Smith, was not in attendance.
Sarasota attorney Morgan Bentley served as moderator of the panel. The candidates discussed a broad range of issues ranging from development, the environment, beach access, parks, abortion, and Siesta Key’s incorporation bid.
When the topic of affordable housing and development were raised, Cosentino criticized Brody for what Cosentino said were his ties to developers and for not doing enough to create affordable housing.
The state, Cosentino said, needs to allow for more short-term rentals. He complained that the county has “produced zero affordable housing plans in the last 20 years.”
Shooting back, Brody called the claim “absolutely false” and said that he has worked with the private sector to create affordable housing.
Cosentino then invited Brody to debate him on Cosentino’s Facebook Live page. Brody did not respond.
Calling for an end to exclusion zones, Smith urged the creation of mixed-use space in order to satisfy the affordable housing crisis.
“In older shopping centers, units above the stores can be created,” he said. “We need to work hand-in-hand with the developers to solve problems.”
Atkins also called for working together with developers to create more affordable housing.
The candidates also differed on how Sarasota’s parks and beaches should be managed. Calling for an end to business contracts on park land, Smith advocated for a licensing system and noted that several small Siesta Key businesses operate on park property. “We can have a symbiotic relationship,” he said. Cosentino said that he believes that businesses should not be on park lands while Brody said that the issue should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
“What would Siesta Key be without the concession stand?” asked Brody.
Atkins warned that businesses should not overwhelm public access to the beach.
Cosentino was also critical of the county’s work with Benderson Development Corporation. “The county should quit subsidizing developers,” he said.
Atkins called on the county to be more accountable to all of its residents, and Smith encouraged the development of parks “where the kids are.”
Brody stated that the county needs to invest in legacy parks.
Meanwhile, there was general consensus on the topic of public beach access, although the four
Candidates presented different paths to allow greater access to Sarasota County and Siesta Key beaches.
“Eminent domain is necessary,” said Smith. “We need to better educate property owners.”
Atkins stated that “everyone needs to have access to the beach.
Cosentino spoke of his success in keeping Siesta Key’s Beach Road open to the public and Brody cited the doctrine of customary use, stating that the county could purchase private property.
When Bentley opened the microphone to audience members, Save Siesta Key board member Tracy Jackson asked the candidates if they would support efforts to approve Siesta Key’s incorporation. Save Siesta Key is a community organization working to make Siesta Key its own municipality, through legal incorporation.
“I fully support it,” Cosentino answered. “The ongoing lawlessness of the Sarasota County commission has led to this movement.”
Smith said that he is undecided on the issue. Calling incorporation “financially unattainable with what it presents now,” Smith cited infrastructure concerns and insufficient funds in the budget for ongoing infrastructure needs. He closed by saying, “but I am open for discussion.”
Atkins quickly stated that he opposes incorporation. Brody said that he is “indifferent” but believes that it is “up to the citizens to decide.”
Jackson called some of the candidates’ responses to her question on future incorporation for Siesta Key “disappointing.”
She said, “I don’t think they’ve read the feasibility study.”