A little less than a month ago, five County Commission candidates, along with other notables, gathered at the Sarasota Garden Club for one of the first public events of the local 2012 campaign season: a debate hosted by the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations. By then, the qualifying deadline had come and gone, and these were the county’s finalists. Dozens of local activists as well as a healthy contingent of reporters were present, scribbling notes and paying close attention.
The moderator read the audience’s questions off of three-by-five cards that had been turned in before the debate began. About halfway through the event, he asked one question that was specifically directed at the three candidates who are running to replace suddenly term-limited Commissioner Jon Thaxton: Republicans Charles Hines and Randy McLendon and write-in candidate Brian Slider.
Do you consider yourself as strong an environmentalist as Jon Thaxton? the moderator asked. All five candidates answered the question, but perhaps none better than current Commissioner Christine Robinson. Anyone who would say yes “is an absolute liar,” she said.
“I think Christine nailed it,” says Jono Miller, the chairman of the county’s Environmental Policy Task Force and a former commission candidate himself. He says that whatever the policy intentions of those running for Thaxton’s seat, the winner won’t have Thaxton’s natural passion for our county’s wilder spots, or his experience living in and selling properties in different areas of the county.
“The way I look at it is: We have two commissioners that are former city commissioners,” Miller says. “Do the other commissioners support solid, coherent relationships with the city? They probably do, but they’ll never have the background and insight the former city commissioners do.”
“There may be or will be commissioners who want to do the right thing, but they won’t necessarily be able to question the staff on technical matters,” Miller says.
“I have great fear over the direction of the County Commission,” says Dan Lobeck, a local lawyer and controlled growth advocate who credits Thaxton for limiting development “excesses” and “urban sprawl,” and “protecting us from traffic congestion.”
In May, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune obtained a copy of a letter written by Bob Waechter, the head of a real estate management company, that called the departure of Thaxton ”an opportunity for a seminal shift on the Board of County Commissioners.” The candidate Waechter’s backing? Charles Hines, a Venice lawyer with a ”strong property rights and business philosophy,” according to Waechter.
At the CONA debate, responding to the question about replacing Thaxton, Hines discussed the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program, a taxpayer-approved and -funded program that allows the county to purchase natural lands that need preserving. He said he would support designating new protected land only “if it’s truly environmentally sensitive and the entire public will benefit from protecting this property.”
Hines says the next commission will be tasked with figuring out how best to manage the lands the county has already set aside. “Rather than just letting them stay vacant,” he says, “can we protect the core purpose of protecting them? Can we figure out a way to make them more income-producing?” He wants the county to look to state and national parks as examples. “Why can’t you have a bike trail there?” he says. “That suddenly opens it up to more uses and a little bit more balance.”
Lobeck calls Miller the “architect” of the Sensitive Lands program; Miller says that instead of focusing on generating income, the county should make some small acquisitions that could “dramatically increase the connectivity of our habitats.”
“That’s one of the big recommendations we’re taking to the County Commission,” Miller says.
The fact that Hines is “bankrolled” by “a who’s who of the local development industry” worries Lobeck. He’s supporting Hines’ Republican primary opponent, the tea party-affiliated Randy McLendon. McLendon is a former preacher, and Lobeck has talked Scripture with him, specifically the part about mankind being good stewards of God’s creation.
Lobeck says McLendon responded positively. “Even though he’s a tea party advocate and they tend to be anti-regulation, there’s some hope,” Lobeck says.
“Though i [sic] have been a conservative, both theologically and politically, my entire adult life my political involvement had been limited to voting and occasionally making a political contribution and writing a letter to a congressman,” McLendon writes in a post on the website of Taking Our Country Back, the Englewood tea party group he helped found. “However, my concern about our economy and particularly about candidate [Barack] Obama caused me to pay closer attention this time around. Once Obama was elected, it quickly became obvious he was going to be just what we feared, or worse.”
McLendon did not respond to interview requests by the News Leader, but one section of the Taking Our Country Back website — “What is Agenda 21?” — suggests McLendon might not be an environmental champion. Agenda 21 is a non-binding United Nations initiative approved two decades ago that helps local communities work toward sustainability through programs such as grant and conference announcements. According to a right-wing conspiracy theory that has sprung up around Agenda 21, the U.N. is secretly encroaching on American sovereignty through the program. Sarasota is a member of ICLEI, an association of sustainability-interested communities that has become the focal point of conservative paranoia.
In February, the Republican Party of Sarasota County adopted a resolution “Exposing UN Agenda 21″ that argues that Agenda 21 is being pushed onto local governments “through local ‘sustainable development’ policies such as Smart Growth, Wildlands Project, Resilient Cities, Regional Visioning Projects, and other ‘Green’ or ‘Alternative’ projects.” McLendon “signed” the resolution online.
“I come from a different perspective than a lot of environmentalists. I’m a Christian,” McLendon said at the CONA debate. “To the degree that we’re good stewards of [land] I believe we’ll be blessed.” He ended by noting his appreciation for the outdoors: “I didn’t move to Sarasota County because of a mall or a subdivision.”
Miller ticks off a host of issues the County Commission will be dealing with in the coming years: coastal management, phosphate mining, regional growth management, competition over dwindling transportation dollars, working with neighborhoods to encourage creative green solutions.
Miller says he hopes McLendon isn’t elected, but Miller hasn’t yet made up his mind about Hines. The winner between those two will face Slider in November.
Whoever eventually wins, the commission will clearly change in a major way. Will it be for the better?