Members of public had planned once again to protest potential of $825,000 agreement with Rumble
With a unanimous vote on a motion made by Commissioner Nancy Detert, the Sarasota County Commission agreed to end the use of its Economic Development Incentive Fund (EDIF) to provide rebates for jobs that companies have created in the county.
Detert initially said she did “not want to go down that rabbit hole again” by mentioning the company whose decision last fall to relocate to Longboat Key sparked numerous public comments during the board’s regular meeting on March 29. That firm is Rumble, which the commissioners voted to award up to $825,000, but only if it created a specific number of new jobs at specific monetary levels.
Detert’s motion called for eliminating all EDIF grants, “immediately.”
The fund, she said, “has not been as effective as we had hoped in the past.”
Earlier, she had discussed the fact that the EDIF was seen as a useful tool to boost the county’s economy as the Great Recession was underway, especially between 2008 and 2010.
Commissioner Ron Cutsinger agreed with her. “Completely different time,” he said.
Later, Detert told her colleagues, “Because of misinformation, disinformation, deliberate misinformation, I think we need to say … the ‘R’ word. … We have no contract with Rumble.” She added. “They never received a dime. … So this isn’t some tricky way, you know, for the paranoid … I just want them to know that.”
The March 29 speakers had urged the commissioners not to award any county taxpayer funds to Rumble, as it has continued to carry programs produced by the Russian television network, RT, even though the United States and its European allies have been decrying Russian propaganda about the invasion of Ukraine, especially given Russia’s attacks on that country’s civilian population.
A demonstration was held in front of the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota before the March 29 commission meeting began. Members of the public protested the potential of county support for Rumble, when many social media platforms have ceased carrying information from RT in the wake of the war on Ukraine.
The discussion about the Economic Development Incentive Fund program was scheduled on the commission’s April 12 afternoon agenda. However, as the board members were close to wrapping up their morning business items, Chair Alan Maio announced that the decision had been made to move up the afternoon business to the morning session.
Last year, the commissioners voted to change their meeting procedures to allow for such a process.
The Sarasota News Leader had learned that numerous members of the public were planning to be present for that afternoon session, to focus once again on the Rumble issue by making comments during the Open to the Public session. Therefore, the Commission Chambers was mostly empty when Maio announced the change in plans on April 12.
The News Leader did try this week to reach Rumble for comments on the decision. It received no response.
Decrying ‘leftist activists’
Early on during the April 12 discussion, Detert referred to board members’ March 29 comments “about a particular company.” She stressed, “Where we need to be is setting policy.”
In the past, she continued, the commissioners had discussed their frustrations with the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County (EDC). Although she never mentioned former President and CEO Mark Huey, who left his position in 2019, she noted that leadership changes had taken place that had improved the relationship between the commission and the EDC.
Before voting on the incentives program, Detert said she wanted to hear from Lisa Krouse, president and CEO of the EDC, who has been in that position about seven months.
Business owners and managers in the county these days are telling the EDC’s representatives that their primary challenges are finding employees who can meet the companies’ job demands, Krouse told the commissioners. They also are concerned about supply chain issues and inflation, she said.
In fact, Krouse pointed out, in response to commissioners’ comments, EDC staff removed information about the EDIF program from the EDC website. “[We] haven’t been marketing the incentive grant program at all.”
Moreover, she continued, “There is no shortage of interest in business coming to Sarasota County.”
Although Krouse said she was not ready at that point to tell the commissioners that the EDIF program should be discontinued, she added, “I think it may require a refresh … [considering] the needs of our community.”
The EDC is marketing itself as a concierge service, she explained. Its staff members are ready to provide assistance to any company that wants to relocate to the county or expand in the county, she added.
“Your insight, I think, has been very refreshing, compared to what we had in the past,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler told Krouse.
Referencing the “attacks out there,” Ziegler continued, “It was just the ‘frequent flyers’ that come here and air out their grievances just picked a new topic of the day, and you ended up being in the crosshairs a little bit, and so did that company, as well, which is unfortunate,” he added, referring to Rumble.
People could watch the video of the March 29 meeting, he continued, and see for themselves “how much false information was out there.”
Ziegler also referred to “some of these leftist activists who like to attack me for whatever deal may come forward in the future for us.”
He pointed out that he and Commissioner Michael Moran both had been discussing for years whether economic incentives are “even necessary.”
Economic incentives, Ziegler said, are a matter of “picking winners and losers, as the government. I don’t really like that at all.”
One question the commissioners should ask, he continued, is whether the focus should be on helping existing businesses or recruiting new ones. Workforce training is a big issue, Ziegler added, along with the need for new zoning districts to ensure that sufficient land is available for companies interested in relocating to the county. (County staff is working on updated zoning regulations to try to ameliorate that situation.)
“This is much bigger than one company,” Ziegler pointed out. Yet, he said, “It takes one company that a bunch of leftists oppose for them to jump on the anti-incentive bandwagon.”
Then Ziegler said, “I don’t think we need the program locally. I think people want to be here.”
Nonetheless, he emphasized, “If some massive opportunity came [up],” the commissioners still could consider using county funds to try to secure the deal.
Commissioner Moran pointed out, “I’ve made it clear for over six years that I feel the entire incentive rebate model is flawed. I was a lone wolf howling at the moon, as Commissioner Detert once said, lovingly,” he added with a chuckle. “I’m for anythingthat changes and moves away from doing the same behaviors over and over and expecting a different result.”
Responses from speakers unable to address the board
At the conclusion of the business on the April 12 agenda, Chair Maio said he had three cards for people who wanted to address the board during the final Open to the Public comment period. All were individuals who had criticized the commissioners on March 29 for not having decided earlier to revoke their October 2021 vote on the economic incentives for Rumble.
None of them was inside the Commission Chambers, however. Therefore, Maio adjourned the meeting.
The News Leader was able to reach two of them for comments on what had transpired that morning.
Sarasota resident Cathy Antunes, who is one of the moderators of a Facebook page called Citizens for Sarasota County, provided a statement that she had posted on that page in the aftermath of the meeting:
“The Board of County Commissioners just voted to end all economic development grants, and as there is no contract with Rumble, it appears the Rumble deal is also dead.
“It is unfortunate that the Commissioners referred to misinformation and paranoid people (constituents) in their comments. What a shame that they don’t have the grace to thank constituents for vocalizing concern about Rumble. We still have a long way to go in changing the culture of local government attitude toward constituents.
“The very good news is citizens won today. This Rumble grant appears to be dead because of public outcry. In an ideal world, Rumble will not bring their propaganda platform to Longboat Key. As a haven for insurrectionists and those who wish to spread misinformation about Covid, QAnon conspiracies and our elections, Rumble has no place in Sarasota county, let alone the United States.￼￼”
Then Antunes wrote in her email to the News Leader that she wanted to add to her statement, “It’s unfortunate that this Commission makes excuses (media misinformation, paranoid people, etc.) and does not own what they did. The decision to fund Rumble was an ill-conceived betrayal of our community’s values. The Rumble/Sarasota deal was loudly proclaimed and appeared in many national media outlet reports. … [T]he Commission is not in a position to question the credibility of citizens or the press who took their own (the County’s) PR at face value.”
The second individual was Adrien Lucas, also of Sarasota, who organized the March 29 demonstration outside the County Administration Center.
Lucas pointed out that, in October 2021, the EDC, the commissioners and Rumble “published their own press releases announcing Rumble’s arrival to Longboat Key and the incentive grant of ‘up to $825K.’
“Today both the County Commissioners and the EDC again reiterated that ‘no contract’ existed.
“They are lying because their lies do not jive with their very own … press releases.”
Further, Lucas pointed out, “Today Commissioner Maio not only moved the EDC discussion to begin in the morning (not at [1 p.m.], as posted on the county calendar), Chair Maio also closed the commission chamber doors at noon to prevent citizens from giving public comment regarding Rumble and the EDC. Commissioners Maio, Moran, Ziegler, Detert and Cutsinger display their cowardice towards people who took time out of their lives today to attend the meeting. Today the Commissioners also disparaged the public, the reporters and not once accepted fault for the support they had shown for Rumble until we, the public, showed up with our #rescindrumblesarasota petitions and rally.”
She added, “Ultimately today was a win for the people of Sarasota. However, Rumble is located officially on Longboat Key hosting [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin’s propaganda and radical Jan. 6th Insurrectionists [while] the genocide in Ukraine continues. Having Rumble located in Sarasota County is reflective of the County Commission and how comfortable they are with having Rumble in Sarasota and a January 6th insurrectionist sitting next to them at their very own dais.”
With the last sentence, Lucas was referring to Ziegler, who acknowledged having attended part of the Jan. 6, 2021 rally during which then-President Donald Trump urged his supporters to march on the Capitol to prevent members of Congress from certifying that Joe Biden won the 2020 Presidential Election.
The past and the present
During his April 12 remarks, Commissioner Moran stressed his opposition to the economic incentives.
In 12 years, Moran said, “Almost $37 million of taxpayer money” was allocated to the incentives. Yet, from 2016 through 2021, he pointed out, only 111 jobs were created as a result of them.
He referenced figures from Rob Lewis, a long-time county staffer who heads up the Governmental Relations division.
Holding up a copy of a 2015 report that a consultant prepared on behalf of the county, which provided “a full analysis” of the EDC, Moran described the findings as “pulling the fire alarm” on what the EDC should have been doing.
One section of the report, under the heading Workforce Development Support, said, “For many businesses, access to talent is the top factor in deciding where to locate or expand.” Yet, during the analysis, the report continued, the consultant talked with area employers who “revealed a greater need for professional-level talent in fields like life sciences and engineer.”
Moran read the next sentence: “‘We recommend that the County explore this need, determining whether Sarasota County could benefit from an expanded workforce initiative that organizes employers and educators and engages in more focused talent attraction activities.’”
He added, “This fire alarm was pulled years and years and years ago, and this [report] got thrown into a drawer.” After he retrieved it from that drawer, Moran said, EDC leaders at the time told him they had no plans to put their attention on workforce issues, in spite of the report’s recommendations.
(Moran first was elected to the board in November 2016.)
He very much is in favor of exploring the potential use of the EDIF money for workforce training, Moran continued, noting that he believes members of the community would support such a proposal. “Short of that,” he said, I’m out.”
Commissioner Cutsinger concurred with Moran on the workforce development idea.
Having met recently with David Verinder, president and CEO of Sarasota Memorial Hospital, Cutsinger said, he learned that the health care system has “1,100 job openings.” Cutsinger added that he expects other major employers in the county are contending with a significant need for workers.