Debates over qualifications and complaints about one candidate take up much of the discussion
As a result of disputes over candidates for open seats on two of its advisory boards, the Sarasota City Commission took about 45 minutes at its most recent session to approve appointees to a total of four boards.
The Planning Board and the Nuisance Abatement Board seats drew the majority of the city commissioners’ attention on June 5. Ultimately, split votes led to the reappointment of Joanne Gonet and Valerie Buchand to their seats on the Nuisance Abatement Board, while Kathy Kelley Ohlrich, immediate past chair of the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations, and architect Damien Blumetti won the seats on the Planning Board. Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie was the only city commissioner to vote against Blumetti, but she did join her colleagues in support of Ohlrich.
At the outset of the Planning Board discussion, City Auditor and Clerk Pam Nadalini explained that the terms of architect Chris Gallagher and Robert Lindsay were due to expire this month. Gallagher was not eligible for re-appointment, she said, while Lindsay was. However, Nadalini noted, Lindsay had not filed an application to keep his seat, which was necessary for reappointment.
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch nominated Ohlrich, while Commissioner Hagen Brody nominated Blumetti. Then Vice Mayor Liz Alpert put forward the name of Shawn Dressler, an urban planner with Kimley-Horn & Associates.
Freeland Eddie nominated Fred Farmer, a computer science instructor at Sarasota Military Academy who previously was a leader of the Arlington Park Neighborhood Association.
“I think that we have, really, actually, four very, very good nominees,” Alpert said. She knows Ohlrich, she continued, “to be a very thorough person” in her approach to issues. However, Alpert added, “we have enough citizen members on this board … and, especially with Chris Gallagher going off the board, I think we need some people with development or architectural experience … ‘real-world’ experience.”
Brody explained that he has known Blumetti “for a long time” and considers him “overly qualified for this position. … I want a board that can advise us on particular or technical issues that we don’t have expertise in. I really don’t want our advisory boards to just be mini political bodies.”
Blumetti is a young man with a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Florida, Brody pointed out, “and is really a student of the progress of Sarasota. … He’s going to see the product of his decisions [on the Planning Board], which I think is extremely important.”
Furthermore, Brody said, because Blumetti’s focus in his professional work is residential design, Blumetti should face few occasions when he would need to recuse himself from a Planning Board discussion.
“I was also very impressed by the applications,” Ahearn-Koch said. Speaking as the only commissioner who served previously on the Planning Board — which she did for six years, she noted — she has “a lot of expertise” in what that advisory council does, she said. “I agree that a variety of different backgrounds on the Planning Board is very, very, very important.” One reason she nominated Ohlrich, she continued, was because Ohlrich had served as a city commissioner in another community and had helped write the Comprehensive Plan for that community. “She will have zero learning curve [if appointed to the Planning Board]. … She’s very involved in the city and dedicated to the community.”
Because Dressler works for Kimley-Horn, Ahearn-Koch added, she expected he would find the necessity to recuse himself from a number of Planning Board discussions.
“I don’t disagree with you [on Ohlrich],” Alpert responded. Nonetheless, her first choice was Blumetti, she added. She also supported Dressler because of his background in landscape architecture, saying that was expertise needed on the Planning Board.
Freeland Eddie cited Farmer’s experience in neighborhood association issues and his volunteer efforts to protect the city’s trees.
Alpert responded that she knows Farmer and that he is “passionate about the community.” Yet, Alpert continued, Planning Board members Eileen Walsh Normile, David Morriss and Patrick Gannon all have neighborhood association expertise.
When Freeland Eddie protested that all three of those members are downtown residents, Alpert replied, “No, no. Mr. Morriss is not.”
Commissioner Willie Shaw then told his colleagues he is “very impressed” with Blumetti. “I found none of the conflicts that others would have brought to this particular board at this time.” He also voiced support for Ohlrich.”
Shaw added, “I’d like to close the discussion.”
Freeland Eddie noted that one member of the public had signed up to address the board on the issue of the appointments.
Mike Lasche took the opportunity to lend his support to Farmer. “I disagree with the idea that we need another architect on [the Planning Board],” Lasche added. “We already have one” — Morriss — “who I would not call a neighborhood advocate, and I don’t think the Planning Board should be dominated by development interests.”
“I really take issue,” Brody responded, “with lumping architects and anybody in the industry” into the same category with developers.
Then Brody questioned whether Ohlrich would face conflict-of-interest issues because of her involvement with the Bayfront 20:20 stakeholders group that has been working toward a plan for new arts, cultural and public opportunities on the 42 acres of bayfront property the city owns.
Ohlrich announced at the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations meeting on June 10 that the stakeholders group soon would no longer be involved in that planning process, Ahearn-Koch pointed out.
When Nadalini called for the vote, Ohlrich won unanimous support. Then, on a vote for Blumetti, Freeland Eddie was the only one not to raise her hand.
The Nuisance Abatement Board seats
During the Nuisance Abatement Board discussion, Nadalini pointed out that the terms of Joanne Gonet and Valerie Buchand expire this month. Both women are eligible for reappointment, Nadalini said, and both have submitted applications to that effect.
On her application, Buchand noted that she is president of the Janie Poe Resident Association, and she described herself as an advocate for low-income residents in the community. Gonet wrote on her application that she is a retired massage therapist who is a civilian volunteer with the Sarasota Police Department and on the board of directors of the Indian Beach Sapphire Shores Association.
Vice Mayor Alpert nominated Katherine Reardon, a homestead fraud investigation manager with the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office, saying Reardon has had experience with Code Enforcement issues “for a long period of time …”
Then Commissioner Shaw nominated retired teacher Gloria Armstrong, followed by Freeland Eddie putting forward Buchand’s name for re-appointment and Commissioner Brody nominating Gonet for another term.
Commissioner Ahearn-Koch also supported the re-appointment of Buchand.
Brody told his colleagues he had concerns about putting Buchand back on the board, because she already serves on the Housing Authority Board and a city ordinance calls for a person to hold a seat on only one advisory council at a time.
Furthermore, Brody continued of Buchand, “She’s just been difficult on the [Nuisance Abatement] Board; makes accusations about the other board members.”
In regard to the latter allegation, Brody referenced minutes of the advisory board’s March 9 meeting, when, he said, Buchand questioned the motives of some of her colleagues, saying they wanted to take certain action just because that would result in properties becoming available for purchase by their friends.
(Nick Dazio, the city’s records manager, told The Sarasota News Leader this week that the minutes have not been approved yet, so they are not available to the public.)
Additionally, Brody said, he had learned that Gonet recently was appointed chair of the board. Therefore, he added, he would prefer re-appointing Gonet and putting Armstrong on the board in place of Buchand.
Alpert responded that she had been told that Armstrong missed a lot of meetings when she previously served on the Nuisance Abatement Board. “Otherwise, she was excellent.”
Alpert also acknowledged that she, too, had received complaints about Buchand.
“Opinions are necessary on these boards,” Commissioner Shaw told Brody and Alpert. “That’s what we solicit … these people for.”
Moreover, Shaw continued, “This is an area where we see a lot of speculative buying [of property].” Any mention by Buchand of that situation, Shaw added, was a reflection of Buchand’s opinion, “and I don’t think such an opinion should take away from what else might be brought to that board … Each of us have our opinions here, and we don’t have to agree.”
“We have members in our community that are very passionate about issues,” Freeland Eddie said. “I agree that we want this type of advocacy.”
As for Brody’s other criticism of Buchand: Freeland Eddie said Buchand is not the only resident to sit on more than one city advisory board. “We don’t necessarily want to penalize [people who volunteer their service in more than one area],” Freeland Eddie added.
Armstrong is a good candidate, Freeland Eddie continued, and her past absences from meetings may have been excused.
“I have worked with Valerie on a variety of different occasions,” Ahearn-Koch said, “and I do know her to be passionate and dedicated to this community. What she [said during the March 9 meeting] may have been taken out of context … So I feel very strongly about Valerie on that board.”
“I don’t disagree about Ms. Buchand,” Alpert responded. “I think she does a lot for the community, and I think she is to be given credit for that.” Her only concern, Alpert added, was whether the other members of the Nuisance Abatement Board would find it difficult to continue working with Buchand.
Brody pointed out that he, too, knows Buchand well, including her passion for the community. “I think it does cross a line when you start accusing people personally of something very unethical …”
Then Freeland Eddie called for the votes. Alpert, Brody and Ahearn-Koch voted for Gonet; Alpert alone voted for Reardon; Alpert and Brody voted for Armstrong; and Freeland Eddie, Ahearn-Koch and Shaw voted for Buchand.
Therefore, Gonet and Buchand won re-appointments to the board.
As for the other two seats the City Commission addressed on June 5: Alan Freedman, a retired public affairs director of the Orange & Rockland Utilities in New York, was re-appointed to another term on the Board of Adjustment; and retired nurse Veavie R. DeLaughter was appointed to the Sarasota Housing Authority.