Changes planned for order of presentations during County Commission public hearings

Board members and staff say their goal is to prevent redundancies

Michele Norton, assistant director of the Planning and Development Services Department, addresses the commissioners on May 4. News Leader image

In an effort to eliminate redundancy in public hearings, the Sarasota County Commission unanimously has agreed with a staff recommendation to revise its order of presentations in most of those proceedings.

The draft of an amendment to the Rules of Procedure for public hearings will come back to the board in a resolution for formal adoption, Michele Norton, assistant director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, told the commissioners on May 4.

In his motion, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger noted that he served for four years on the county’s Planning Commission before his November 2020 election to the County Commission. Therefore, he said, he eventually would like to see the same recommended changes approved for the Planning Commission’s hearings.

“Wow. That’s an excellent thought,” Chair Alan Maio responded.

Maio asked that that proposal be part of Cutsinger’s motion; none of the other commissioners objected to that.

During her May 4 presentation, Norton noted that, in the late fall of 2020, the county commissioners discussed potential changes to the Rules of Procedure.

“Staff typically goes very in-depth,” she continued, in presenting the various facets of an application for the board’s consideration. Then, the team representing the petitioner often reiterates many of the points the staff member made. That process, Norton added, “may create some redundancies.”

Staff researched how public hearings are conducted in other, neighboring jurisdictions, she noted. In about half of those, she said, the applicant’s presentation is scheduled first. That allows the staff member to concentrate more on the consistency of the application with the local government’s Comprehensive Plan and Municipal Code, Norton pointed out.

A May 4 Sarasota County staff memo provided to the commissioners in advance of the meeting says that in jurisdictions that allow the applicants to make their presentations first, those persons “establish the background of the project, justify its merits, and defend how it supports the comprehensive plan and/or other county regulations. Upon conclusion of the applicant’s presentation, staff fills in information gaps but does not repeat information. Gaps may include recommended stipulations or community feedback.”

Based on its analysis and logistical considerations, Norton told the commissioners, staff recommended the following order for presentations, reprising the information in the May 4 staff memo:

  • “Staff provides a brief overview of the public hearing item, addresses any logistical issues, and introduces the petitioner.
  • “The petitioner’s presentation for the agenda item being considered is limited to 20 minutes.
  • “After the applicant’s presentation, staff presents standard information, highlighting key aspects of the petition, consistency with the Comprehensive Plan and any relevant codes, and any stipulations.
  • “Staff is prepared to conduct a formal presentation as needed, limited to 20 minutes.
  • “Staff addresses any questions from the [commissioners].
  • “The Chair allows for public comment and the remainder of the meeting follows the current process.
  • “Special provisions may be made at the discretion of the Chair and County Administrator on a case-by-case basis to allow the order of presentations to be adjusted.”

For example, Norton said, in cases in which an applicant may not have a professional planner or attorney to discuss his or her petition, the commission might prefer to hear the staff presentation first.

This chart provides information about how other jurisdictions handle public hearing presentations. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Norton noted that she worked for a couple of years in a jurisdiction in which the petitioner made the initial presentation. If the Sarasota County Commission chooses to switch the order during its hearings, she added, “There is a period of adjustment … but all in all, [the change] is a positive experience.”

With no questions from his colleagues for her to answer, Chair Maio told Norton, “I think this [recommendation] is entirely appropriate. … Our staff is not here — I firmly believe — to do the job of the petitioner’s consultant or their attorneys.”

Maio also said that if the commissioners do adopt the change in order, staff members should not feel they have to take the full 20 minutes they are allowed under the Rules of Procedure.

Staff needs to “hit the high notes,” Maio added, including any points the petitioner or the project team might have omitted. “Otherwise,” he continued, “we’ve just gone backwards in time.”

After Commissioner Cutsinger made the motion calling for the amendment to the Rules of Procedure, Commissioner Christian Ziegler seconded it. “I think it makes sense,” Ziegler said. The switch in order of presentations will not restrict any applicant in advocating for his or her petition, Ziegler added.

Norton did not offer a timeline for when the proposed resolution would be brought to the commission for adoption.