By John Morton
For the first time in eight years, a Siesta Key resident will have a seat on the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners.
It was darn close, but on Nov. 8 longtime island volunteer and leader Mark Smith edged former Sarasota mayor Fredd Atkins in the District 2 race by a margin of a little more than 1%. Smith garnered 19,141 votes (50.51%) compared to 18,755 for Atkins (49.49%).
“I want to thank all my supporters for their help in the election.” Smith said.
District 2 represents, in part, the northern half of Siesta Key. The southern half belongs to District 4, and that’s where former Venice City Council member Joe Neunder defeated Daniel Kuether. Neunder received 28,038 votes (59.42%) and Kuether 19,148 votes (40.58%).
The winners were sworn in Nov. 22 in the Sarasota County Administrative Center. Both are Republicans, keeping a streak alive of Republican-only commission members dating back more than 50 years.
The other election to directly impact Siesta Key was that of House District 73. Republican incumbent Fiona McFarland, who represents the Save Siesta Key incorporation effort, outlasted challenger Derek Reich by capturing 56.27% of the vote.
“We are delighted that Fiona has been re- elected. Her track record and values as a legislator representing the priorities of our district are to be commended,” said Tim Hensey, chairman of Save Siesta Key.
As for the victorious Smith, he jumped into the race when incumbent Christian Ziegler chose not to run for re-election. He faced challenges in a district that had more registered Democratic voters than Republicans – a rarity in this region – and that was for the first time within the framework of the single-member-district voting process.
“I am honored and humbled by the number of non-Republican voters that took a leap of faith and voted for me, proving that there are more issues that bind us than divide us,” Smith said.
Single-member voting districts were upheld by voters in 2020, meaning that only voters within a given district could vote for a candidate that resides in that same district.
On election night, Gilligan’s Island Bar & Grill was home to an election-result “watch party” for Smith. Mike Gatz, the general manager of that business who is also the current president of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, was among those who celebrated Smith’s win with high-fives and hugs after Smith returned from a victory speech at Robarts Arena.
Gatz, who described Smith as “a man with integrity,” noted that his profession as an architect will well-serve the construction-happy region.
“With his expertise, he’ll be a positive force for the commission, especially with all the building going on,” Gatz said of Smith.
Indeed, Smith said he’s be focusing on that building boon, primarily near I-75, as one of his main focal points right out of the gate.
“I plan on reviewing all the planned development out east. I want to understand the full impact of these developments on our infrastructure, environment, and the neighboring communities,” he said.
Also, he wants to address environmental issues.
“There is a serious air pollution problem in the city of Sarasota that the county can resolve,” he said.
Smith’s keys to success?
“I believe my history of successfully getting things done for Siesta Key — beautification of the Siesta Key Village, additional parking on the Key, volunteering to review the Siesta Beach construction costs to convince the BCC to keep the project moving forward — resonated with neighborhood leadership that I could help them get their issues resolved. I also believe my years of volunteering to help organizations like the Girl Scouts and All Faiths Food Bank showed my commitment to our community,” said Smith, who will be the first Siesta resident on the commission since 2014, when Nora Patterson’s 16-year run ended due to newly established term limits.
Smith, who is chair-elect of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, will step down from that role but remain on the organization’s board of directors.
Regarding Neunder, among his areas of focus will be an issue that’s a hot topic on Siesta Key.
“There are a lot of opportunities ahead of us. I’m especially excited about the prospect of reopening Midnight Pass,” he said. “It will be a heavy lift, but I think we can get there.”
He added, “I moved to Sarasota as a kid and am honored to have our community’s trust as its incoming commissioner for District 4. I look forward to delivering on the issues I ran on: tax relief for Sarasota residents, support for our sheriff and first responders, and building a community where my sons and their generation can live out their own version of the American dream.”
Kuether, who spent a good amount of time on the Key during his campaign, was disappointed. It was his first pursuit of public office.
“Unfortunately, the developer-selected candidates won again, and big development continues to hold control over the Sarasota County Commission,” he said. “I’m afraid that Sarasota County and Siesta Key are destined to continue to see the influx of high-density hotels, the bypassing of environmental protections, and the overruling of Sarasota‘s comprehensive plan.
“Many of these local issues surpass party lines, and my campaign focused heavily on reaching across the aisle to talk about making a Sarasota that worked better for us all. I’ll continue to fight for Siesta Key incorporation, protecting our beaches, and maintaining the Sarasota we all love anyway I can.”