July 19 forum features all but one individual seeking a board seat this year
Developer bashing, Brody bashing and the bashing of the Board of Sarasota County Commissioners: Over a period of approximately 90 minutes on July 19, seven of the eight candidates for County Commission seats this year worked to win the support of Siesta Key residents during a forum hosted by five island organizations.
Moderator Tracy Jackson, vice chair of Save Siesta Key — the nonprofit focused on incorporating the Town of Siesta Key — covered the gamut of issues on the island.
The candidates who live on the Key — Democrat Mike Cosentino and Republicans Lourdes Ramirez and Mark Smith, all of whom are vying for the District 2 seat — had the opportunity to illustrate their understanding of topics that take a high priority among their neighbors.
At various times, Hagen Brody, a member of the Sarasota City Commission — who also is a District 2 candidate and a Democrat — used examples of that local government body’s actions to propose changes in ways that the County Commission handles Siesta issues.
Additionally, District 4 Republican candidate Mark Hawkins of Sarasota, who said he has lived in the county for about 60 years, demonstrated his familiarity with most of the issues Jackson addressed.
Finally, former Sarasota Mayor and City Commissioner Fredd Atkins, yet another Democrat campaigning for the District 2 seat, and Democrat Daniel Kuether of Sarasota, who hopes to win the District 4 seat, were ready with answers to Jackson’s questions, as well.
The only candidate who was not present at the forum was Republican Joe Neunder of Venice, a former member of that city’s Council and a past member of the county Planning Commission. He had cited family issues as the reason for his absence.
The following is a sampling of questions and answers during the event:
Do you support a comprehensive traffic study for Siesta Key?
Mark Smith: Such a study should be undertaken whenever an applicant is seeking Special Exception approval from the County Commission for development on the Key. (A Special Example can allow a project team to construct a building taller than its parcel’s zoning allows, for example.) Smith pointed out that he long was a proponent of the Siesta Key Breeze trolley, “which has been extremely successful.” The trolley and free-ride services are ways to alleviate many of the traffic problems, once people are on the island, Smith added.
Daniel Kuether: Such a study should be undertaken before any new, large development is allowed on the Key, Kuether told the audience. He also talked about how dangerous Sarasota County is for pedestrians. “We need to re-evaluate how our roads are structured, specifically through Siesta Village.” Kuether further proposed research into how vehicles can be re-routed in some areas of the island to improve the traffic flow. Finally, he said, “I would also like to see park-and-ride facilities,” especially for tourists heading to accommodations on the island.
Lourdes Ramirez: It should not take a new proposal for development on the Key to prompt a comprehensive traffic study, she said. The study should be undertaken right away. “We know where our deficiencies area.” Ramirez talked, too, of the need to find a better means for people to get “off and on the Key.” Further, she called for a comprehensive study of other island infrastructure, such as water and sewer lines, to ensure they are adequate to serve new planned developments.
Fredd Atkins: While he said he supports the idea of a study, he cautioned the audience that such studies “usually … tell you what you already know.” Atkins suggested looking into better options for employees to reach the island, instead of having to drive by themselves and then find parking spaces. Perhaps car pools would be a good option, he said. Business owners, their employees and residents can collaborate right away on better ideas, he added.
Hagen Brody: “Very good question,” he replied at first. Brody also called for park-and-ride options, perhaps from the former Southgate Mall on Siesta Drive in the city and from Gulf Gate Mall, for individuals who want to head to the southern part of the island. Further, Brody touted the “wildly successful” Bay Runner trolley that the city launched in March, which travels between downtown and St. Armands and Lido keys. If a trolley system ran smoothly between Siesta and off-island parking sites, he said, people would use it.
Mike Cosentino: A study, he pointed out, will have the answers that whoever commissioned it wanted to see. He referenced traffic studies undertaken by the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota on behalf of multiple developers, including Benderson Development, which was behind the Siesta Promenade mixed-use project planned for the northwest quadrant of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road. Further, Cosentino said, “Our traffic problems are greatly exacerbated by the ‘hotel houses …’” He was referring to residential structures built on the island in recent years that are designed to accommodate up to 20 or more people. Cosentino also voiced his opposition to the Siesta Key Breeze. “The trolley sucks. I sit behind that thing all the time.” Alluding to Mark Smith’s estimate that the Breeze had kept 500,000 vehicles off the road since it began its service in March 2017, Cosentino said he does not believe the trolley has eliminated any of the traffic congestion.
Mark Hawkins: “Our county commissioners failed us. They allowed this traffic to come in.” He lamented the fact that the commissioners approved the Siesta Promenade project, though he noted it probably is two to three years away from construction. His proposal to help with the traffic on the Key, he continued, is “No new hotels; no new development; no new construction.” People could remodel buildings, Hawkins added, but the resulting structures should not be larger than the original ones.
Would you press the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to rescind its permit for a stoplight planned at the intersection of Stickney Point Road and Avenue B and C. (In approving the concept plan for Siesta Promenade, in December 2018, the County Commission stipulated that that traffic signal would have to be in place before the construction of the mixed-use development began. A south Siesta resident, James P. Wallace III, has litigation underway to try to prevent the installation of the stoplight.)
Hawkins: As a commissioner, he said, he would reject the plans for that stoplight.
Cosentino: “That was the worst intersection in Sarasota County,” even before the commission vote. “It was a D minus,” he added, referring to the level of service, as noted by FDOT. “Level of service” refers to a driver’s perception of traffic flow, with F being the worst. Cosentino asserted that the intersection would have operated at an F level of service with Siesta Promenade open, which was why the commissioners called for the traffic signal at Avenue B and C. He also called commission Chair Alan Maio, who holds the District 4 seat, “probably the most corrupt county commissioner in our history,” noting that Maio worked as a principal for decades with the Kimley-Horn consulting firm before retiring from the consulting firm to seek county office. Kimley-Horn conducted the traffic study for Siesta Promenade.
Brody: “I haven’t followed that issue closely,” he initially replied. Still, he called the stoplight plans “problematic,” as moderator Jackson had pointed out that the Avenue B and C light would be just 200 feet west of the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road light. Yet, Brody added, “You’ve got to be careful, because you might end up with a roundabout.” Brody then talked once more about the city’s Bay Runner trolley, noting that FDOT has provided most of the funding for that service, and he noted the need for park-and-ride options for island visitors.
Atkins: The reason the County Commission agreed to swap River Road, in South County, to FDOT, in exchange for the county’s taking over Siesta roads — including the section of Stickney Point Road from the intersection of U.S. 41 to the intersection of Midnight Pass Road on the Key — was to make certain the stoplight could be installed, Atkins alleged. “The state couldn’t justify putting that [Avenue B and C] light so close to [the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road traffic signal],”he added, so the county had to be in control of that stretch of road. (The commissioners have maintained that they pursued the road swap because they had failed, over decades, to win FDOT support for River Road improvements. FDOT leaders said that as long as River Road was in the county’s jurisdiction, the state could not justify spending money to widen it and install other safety features.)
Ramirez: She agreed with other candidates that representatives of a firm undertaking a traffic study for a developer are “going to twist it a little bit to suit their needs.” Ramirez added of the Avenue B and C light, “I think it’s a public safety issue.” Too many problems already exist for drivers on the affected stretch of road, she said, including motorists cutting people off in traffic to try to get around congestion.
Kuether: He agreed, as well, that “developers too frequently” do what they want. If Siesta residents are opposed to the stoplight, he added, as a county commissioner, he would be, as well.
Smith: “The traffic light’s a bad idea,” he said. Over Memorial Day weekend, he told the audience, he and his wife were stuck in traffic for about 90 minutes as they tried to return to their Siesta home via Stickney Point Road. Normally, he noted, that would be a 10-minute trip. Benderson Development admitted that Siesta Promenade would affect a much wider area than Kimley-Horn studied for the traffic report on the project, Smith pointed out. The County Commission must ensure that county regulations require traffic study methodology that accurately takes into account all of the affected areas of a new development, he added.
Siesta Key property owners generate about 9% of the county’s property tax revenue, even though they make up only about 2% of the county’s population. Yet, they feel they have no voice in county issues. How would you change that?
Kuether: “The first solution to that problem is not electing another Republican to the County Commission,” he replied. (For more than 50 years, no Democrat has won a seat on the board.) Incorporating the Town of Siesta Key would be a big factor in winning more attention from the commission, he added.
Smith: “We need folks on the commission that understand what they’re looking at,” when it comes to developers’ proposals, he said, noting his expertise as an architect. A commissioner who does not understand the issues cannot ask the right questions, Smith added. “You’re going to get the wrong answers over and over and over again.”
Brody: “Good question,” he replied. District 2 needs a champion on the commission who will look out for Siesta Key’s interests, he said. “I would be out here all the time,” he continued, “talking to you folks. In fact, Brody said, he believed Commissioner Christian Ziegler did not seek re-election to the District 2 seat because of frustrations over an inability to gain support of his colleagues on issues that he wanted to address that affected the Key.
Ramirez: “We pay a lot of taxes. … We’ve got to go in with [the] attitude [that Siesta residents] “are important. … I would turn off the tax spigot and see how the county feels without our money.” The commissioners, she added, “should pay attention to us.”
Atkins: “One of the most important steps is to demand your respect. … You all have been selecting the wrong candidates for 50 years.” Atkins added that island residents need to interact more with the county’s administrative staff members, as well, because of the influence they have on the handling of issues. “There’s no excuse for you all to have roads, bridges community zoning that’s in worse shape than the Newtown area.” As a Newtown resident on the City Commission, he continued, “I represented [the members of that community] like a bulldog, and I can do the same thing for the Siesta Key community.”
Hawkins: The implementation of the Single-Member Districts voting system for County Commission, after the 2018 General Election, means that a candidate for County Commission no longer has to raise $200,000 to $300,000 to win, he pointed out. (Under the Single-Member Districts system, voters can cast ballots only for candidates who live in the same districts where they live. Previously, all candidates were elected countywide.) Hawkins added that he has met with representatives of 60 homeowners associations and conducted two rallies. The biggest complaint he has heard from voters across the county, he said, is that the commissioners do not listen to them. He further noted that he has taken no money from developers for his campaign.
Cosentino: “First of all,” he said, “I don’t think we feel we’re being ignored; we are being ignored. [Yet,] we are the government.” The commissioners, he said, are “the developers’ representatives, not our representatives.” Then he contended that Brody had been a factor in the construction of all the new high-rise condominiums in downtown Sarasota. “If that’s what you want the Village to look like,” Cosentino said, then Mr. Brody is definitely your guy.”
The top four concerns on the Key
Jackson, the moderator, asked each candidate to rank four major concerns for island residents: illegal short-term home rentals; the Siesta Key Association’s Grand Canal Restoration Project, which involves the installation under docks of devices called mini reefs, which lead to cleaner water; charter boat captains operating out of county parks in violation of county regulations; and putting all of Siesta Key into one County Commission district.
These are the top issues for the candidates:
Hawkins: The Grand Canal initiative, because of the importance of water quality to the region.
Cosentino: Illegal short-term rentals. The law that pre-empts regulation of short-term rentals to the state needs to be repealed, he said.
Brody: He advocated for both better water quality and measures to reduce problems with short-term rentals, such as requiring the registration of owners of such properties and limiting the number of guests. The City Commission, he pointed out, approved regulations that allow city staff to shut down a rental property if the owner proves to be “a bad actor.”
Atkins: The Grand Canal project. Residents need “a pristine [Sarasota] Bay,” he said.
Ramirez: Illegal short-term rentals. The county, she said, needs to assign to the Key a Code Enforcement officer who does nothing else but handle complaints about violations of the county’s rental regulations for single-family neighborhoods. Ramirez voiced support for a county property owner registration system akin to the one Brody said that the City Commission approved last year.
Kuether: The Grand Canal project. “I would like to see every [County Commission] decision go through an ecological lens.”
Smith: “Illegal rentals is definitely No. 1.” He added, “Parking rules on Siesta Key.” If county regulations were approved to limit parking at houses rented to visitors, he added, “That may cut down on some of these rentals.”
A smattering of other remarks
As the event continued, these were among other comments from the candidates:
Brody: Referring to Atkins and Cosentino, he said, “These two keep lying about me.” Brody added that he brought with him his campaign finance records and that he would be happy to show them to anyone to prove that he has been getting “extremely broad support across the county.”
Atkins: Referring to Brody, he said, “Everybody that paid his way is going to get their reward. … I’m un-bought and I’m unbowed, and I will speak for you.”
Cosentino: “There’s two kinds of candidates up here — developer sellouts and people that are representing the people. … It’s about right and wrong.”
Hawkins: “I’ve gotten some very interesting mail from Tallahassee …” Noting that his Republican primary opponent, Neunder, refuses to debate him, in spite of four requests Hawkins has made for such events, Hawkins added that the mailers are attacking him. “And I don’t know those people” who are sending out the mailers.
Kuether: Explaining that he worked for several years for Rex Jensen, the developer of Lakewood Ranch, he said that he left his position shortly after he learned that “Jensen cheated the system” last year to get a vaccine against COVID-19 during a VIP event that Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh had organized with state leaders. Jensen’s firm, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, certainly has not approached him, Kuether said, to offer any campaign financial support, and he does not expect it would. Even if Jensen offered him a contribution, Kuether added, he would not take it.
Smith: “We haven’t had strong Siesta Key leadership on the County Commission for a long time.” That’s how island residents ended up seeing the commissioners vote for two hotel projects on the Key and approve Siesta Promenade, he added.
Ramirez: “It’s really important that we become independent,” through incorporation.