A Realtor, a CPA and an Air Force veteran appointed to county’s Planning Commission

Once again, former Commissioner Thaxton fails to win a nomination

The six remaining Planning Commission members as of that time sit at the dais with Deputy County Attorney Joshua Moye (third from right) for the Aug. 19 meeting. News Leader image

On the evening of Sept. 2, when the Sarasota County Planning Commission conducts a public hearing on the second hotel proposed for Siesta Key, three new board members should be seated at the dais.

With County Commission Chair Alan Maio making all the nominations himself on Aug. 25, his board approved replacements for three planning commissioners: Laura Benson of Venice; Frank Strelec of Sarasota; and Drew Peters of Sarasota.

A county staff memo noted that Benson’s and Strelec’s terms had expired, while Peters had resigned. Peters had just won reappointment to the Planning Commission in late January. Maio noted on Aug. 25 that Peters is “a pretty big businessman in our community,” and his work responsibilities necessitated the resignation.

Peters is senior vice president for wealth management with LCM Capital Advisors.

“Understand,” Maio said, “that it is 100 hours of attending the meetings and really reading the files, probably every month,” for the Planning Commission members. “All these people have lives, and many of them have businesses,” he added.

Laura Benson makes a statement during the June 17 Planning Commission meeting. File image

Benson is a Realtor with Michael Saunders & Co., while Strelec is a mediator and a retired attorney and pharmacist.

Benson first was appointed to the Planning Commission in June 2016; Strelec, in December 2017.

The appointments are for four years.

The new planning commissioners are Martha Pike of Nokomis, a Realtor; Donna L. Carter of North Venice, a CPA; and Jordan Keller of Sarasota, a veteran and project manager of Red Dog’s Roofing in Sarasota.

Once again, former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton of Osprey had applied for one of the open seats. He was among seven on the list for consideration on Aug. 25. He has applied for a Planning Commission posting seven times in a little more than seven years, based on Sarasota County News Leader tracking of the appointments over that period.

Thaxton has been known statewide for his strong environmental positions, including his leadership in implementing the county’s seasonal ban on the use of fertilizers, to reduce the amount of nutrients going into the waterways during the rainy season. He also was the primary force behind the creation of the county’s Stormwater Utility, which was the first in the state.

Thaxton is senior vice president with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, in which capacity he collaborated with a team to develop the Community Playbook for Healthy Waterways. That initiative suggests a multitude of activities that can be pursued to improve the quality of the county’s water bodies.

Making the appointments

“For your indulgence,” Maio began after reading the agenda item into the record on Aug. 25, he asked that his colleagues consider one opening on the Planning Commission at a time.

First, he thanked Benson “for her long service,” noting that she had asked not to be reappointed. “Laura, you did a great job,” he added.

Martha Pike. Photo from the Sotheby’s real estate website

Then Maio nominated Pike for one of the full terms, pointing out that she is a South County resident. “I’ve interviewed a number of [the new applicants],” he said. “Some asked to be interviewed.”

With no other county commissioner offering a name, Maio affirmed Pike’s appointment, adding that she would receive training from the Office of the County Attorney and the county’s Planning and Development Services staff, to prepare her for service on the Planning Commission.

When Commissioner Nancy Detert asked whether the board needed to vote on Pike, Maio responded, “No.” With only one name put up for a seat, he explained, no vote is needed.

Then Maio thanked Strelec for his Planning Commission service. “Frank asked not to be reappointed,” Maio continued.

For the second nomination for a full term, Maio named Carter, pointing out that she also is a South County resident. “I do think that she would do a good job. I did meet with her, which I’m allowed to do,” he said.

No other names were put forth.

Finally, to fill out Peters’ unexpired term, Maio nominated Keller. “He’s a businessman and manager,” Maio said, as well as an Air Force veteran who served “in many places,” including Afghanistan. “He is very anxious to do this,” Maio added of the Planning Commission service.

After he closed the nominations, Maio said, “We did get a nice pool of people” for the seats.

He added that he believed Michele Norton, assistant director of Planning and Development, extended by a month the period for submission of applications. “It was great seeing the number we got.”

Thaxton filed an application in October 2020 and again in July, according to a document in the Aug. 25 agenda packet. Carter submitted her application on June 11, while Pike filed hers on June 25, the document says. Keller submitted his on July 7.

The new planning commissioners

These are the Planning Commission attendance records for 2020 and most of this year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In her application, Pike noted that her manager and leaders of the Venice Chamber of Commerce suggested that she apply for the position. “I would like to help the community I grew up in and get more involved in the planning process,” she wrote.

Pike is taking part in the Leadership Venice Class of 2021, she added. During the first session, she wrote, the members of that group visited Venice City Hall, where they heard a panel, “including the planning director, [who shared] the process that I want to be part of,” Pike pointed out.

In response to the application question about the most pressing planning and land use issues in the county, Pike wrote, “Growth and Development. Affordable housing which will encourage the workforce to move here or stay in the community. … I believe another important factor is to encourage more sustainable, green building practices.”

Asked her vision of the county in 10 years, she noted that the county should “maintain the charm, beauty, resources and appeal that has kept me in this community for my whole life. Easy access to beaches, shopping, dining, amenities.”

Donna Carter. Photo from her LinkedIn account

Carter, a two-year county resident, wrote in her application, “I really love living in Sarasota County and want to contribute to the responsible growth and preservation of this wonderful place.”

In response to the question about the most pressing county issues, she wrote, “[B]alancing the needs to expand and build more housing and support services in more rural areas to meet the demands of our ever growing population with the desires of people in rural communities who want to preserve them. In conjunction with this, is this issue of protecting our wildlife, eco-system, water, and beauty of the land.”

Regarding her vision of the county in 10 years, Carter noted, “We are now experiencing tremendous growth (more so than at any time in our history). Unlike so many urban areas, we have a great opportunity to learn from their lack of planning so we can avoid/mitigate those mistakes. … The one thing I really see and (hope) is that the beauty and environment are preserved.”

In his application, Keller — who also has been a county resident for two years — wrote, “My diverse professional and personal background [provide] a unique perspective that can enhance our community. … I enjoy finding solutions and strategic planning which would serve the council to achieve its mission.”

His attached resume says he served in the Air Force from 2003 to 2018.

He noted that he is a “[s]killed military and construction team leader with diverse technical and managerial skills.” He has a Master of Business Administration degree and a Bachelor of Science in management from Park University, he added.

Park University is located in Parkville, Mo.

The other applicants

Along with Thaxton, two other applicants in the latest pool have tried in the past to win Planning Commission appointments:

  • Christopher King of Sarasota, a retired Englewood optometrist, wrote in his application that he is a past chair of the Planning Commission, past chair of the Sarasota County Myakka River Planning Advisory Committee and past president of the Englewood Cape Haze Area Chamber of Commerce.

(A News Leader search found that King served on the Planning Commission from 2008 to 2012.)

In response to the application’s question regarding “the most pressing planning and land issues in Sarasota County,” King wrote, “Transportation and water will continue to be our biggest issues. They should be primary factors when considering our community’s future development. [Stormwater] runoff and wastewater issues already affect our beaches and waterways. We need continued diligence to preserve those elements we most cherish. … I believe that proper planning will allow our community to continue to grow and thrive.”

  • Dr. Ellen D. Silkes of Sarasota, a retired physician, who wrote that she was seeking an appointment so she could “be involved in shaping the community in which I reside.” In response to the application question regarding what she believes “are the most admirable traits for an individual to successfully perform the responsibilities of a Planning Commission member,” and how she meets that definition, she wrote, “The most important trait is to listen and be able to see both sides of an issue. My training as a doctor, advising patients, uniquely qualifies me in that regard. In addition, I have executive experience on … various committees and Boards … which taught me how to make decisions that will guide Sarasota into the future.”
  • Thomas P. Gretz of Sarasota, who works in corporate finance for Parallel, a health and wellness company based in Atlanta, he noted.
Tom Gretz. Image from his LinkedIn account

Gretz earned a master’s degree in real estate development from the University of Maryland, he pointed out, and he has “worked with large institutions (Federal Government) and small high growth organizations and advised on many areas,” including finance, planning, budgets, real estate, asset management and capital markets. He has been involved in the real estate industry for 15 years, he added.

Gretz also is a veteran, he wrote, having served in the Kosovo Campaign from 1999 to 2001 and in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. He has been awarded two Naval Achievement Medals, he added — in 2000 and in 2002.

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