County Commission puts off decision on new code enforcement officer for Siesta Key

Comments about one Siesta business lead to 5-minute cooling-off period

The Sarasota County Commission holds its second full day of budget discussions on June 13 in the Third Floor Think Tank of the Administration Building in Sarasota. Photo by Norman Schimmel

The Sarasota County Commission made no decision today, June 13, regarding the hiring of a new full-time code enforcement officer to handle noise complaints involving bars and restaurants in Siesta Village.

County Administrator Randall Reid said the board’s Aug. 20 meeting on the 2013 fiscal year budget would be the latest date he would prefer to have another position added, if the board ultimately decided to do that, to ensure adequate advertisement of that budget before the board adopted it in September.

The cost of that code enforcement position, with benefits, would be $70,029, Rob Lewis, the county’s executive director of planning and development services, told The Sarasota News Leader.

During their discussions of the position, exchanges between two commissioners about one Village restaurant led to a 5-minute break imposed by Chairwoman Christine.

It was the second full day this week of budget discussions for the board, with a final session set for 9:30 a.m. Friday.

“You’ve got one establishment out there that has a different overall decibel reading [for live entertainment], and that’s 85 decibels,” Commissioner Nora Patterson said, referring to the special exception for live music held by The Hub Baja Grill in Siesta Village.

The other two Village businesses with special exceptions are the Daiquiri Deck Raw Bar and the Siesta Key Oyster Bar.

Still without mentioning The Hub by name, Patterson said that for a couple of years, no businesses on the site The Hub occupies in the Village had live music. Then, she added, “as a result of a settlement in a lawsuit, [the special exception allowing music up to 85 decibels] was put back … [though] they really haven’t been the source of complaints in recent times.”

Commissioner Joe Barbetta told her, “I do not like … rehashing [talk of lawsuits regarding] a legally operated business, Commissioner Patterson. They operate legally; they got their special exception legally and to talk about the fact that they wouldn’t exist except for the lawsuit is unfair to that business. … It shouldn’t have been brought up. That kind of comment is out of line.”

Barbetta added, “I think it is a waste of money to put another [full-time code enforcement officer] out there. … I think they’re self-policing over there.”

Furthermore, Barbetta said, “We’re talking about a handful of people — the same people who do the complaining all the time, and if you put a full-time [code enforcement] person over there, they’ll be calling him every minute of every day.”

Barbetta added, “This is a village that has entertainment. … Sure it’s going to be a little bit noisy, and the people that live in the immediate vicinity know that.”

“Commissioner Barbetta, you misunderstood my intent,” Patterson told him. “I mentioned the 85-decibel [level] not because I thought we arbitrarily could change it. … What I was saying was there really is only one [business] that has a higher decibel level limit,” so law enforcement and code enforcement officers should not have trouble enforcing the special exceptions.

After Barbetta tried several times to interrupt Patterson, Robinson called for the five-minute break.

After the break, Barbetta said, “The reason why I reacted the way I did is because we’re in our third lawsuit with [Chris Brown, owner of The Hub] … We should not be making derogatory comments about an organization like that.”

He pointed out that the county had paid settlements to Brown in the first two lawsuits.

“I didn’t think that I had made any derogatory comments [about The Hub] and certainly had not intended to,” Patterson said, “nor are they really part of the difficulty.”

Brown’s first lawsuit against Sarasota County involved allegations that meddling by county officials regarding zoning matters delayed the opening of The Hub in the fall of 2007 and cost Brown tens of thousands of dollars in revenue. Brown had alleged that Patterson was among those who had worked behind-the-scenes to have a certificate of occupancy denied to The Hub because of a dispute over parking spaces.

The second lawsuit alleged the county had overcharged Brown on parking assessments for his Village businesses, including The Cottage and The Beach Club.

During the June 13 discussion, Sandra Jones of the county’s Code Enforcement Office told the board that several positive aspects would be associated with hiring a new officer, whose efforts would be concentrated in Siesta Village and Gulf Gate. For example, she said, response time would be faster when complaints came in, and a full-time person could become well-acquainted with both the establishments to be monitored and the noise ordinance itself, leading to more consistent enforcement.

One of the biggest challenges with enforcing the ordinance in Siesta Village, Jones said, was the fact that three of the businesses have special exceptions.

“Seventy-five decibels is workable for bands,” Patterson said, but late at night, the ordinance calls for a maximum of 60 decibels for the other two businesses. “That is unreasonable and unworkable,” Patterson added.

“The 75 is what I would feel would be the recommended decibel level that would be enforced,” Jones said.

When Patterson asked County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh whether county staff and deputies could enforce a 75-decibel level, DeMarsh said, “I don’t think the board has the prerogative to establish how to enforce those [special exceptions] … but the people who are out in the field use their discretion in determining what to do.”

If the County Commission wanted a change in the special exceptions, DeMarsh said, public hearings would be necessary.

“I would be fine with doing that,” Patterson said.

Barbetta agreed with DeMarsh. “I don’t think we can arbitrarily change the decibel level in a special exception that has been granted.”

Patterson and Robinson said later that they did not believe the county needed to hire another full-time person to work in code enforcement to deal with the Siesta Village problems.

Someone could be paid overtime to work sporadic evenings and weekends in the Village, Patterson said, to help handle enforcement of the noise ordinance.

“I think that you’ll find that the feeling all along is that we can live together with a little more enforcement for a couple of establishments that have been a little cavalier,” Patterson said.

Code enforcement responsibilities

However, in response to questions from Robinson, Jones cited other reasons it would be easier for a full-time person to handle the work. For example, Jones said, violations would end up being handled either in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Sarasota or in a special magistrate’s court, both of which operated in the daytime.

A part-time code enforcement officer would have to juggle those daytime activities with the nighttime and weekend work, Jones pointed out.

A new full-time officer would spend about 50% of the time on noise issues, Jones added, with the remainder of the work divided among other types of code enforcement calls.

In response to a question from Patterson, Jones said her office has two fewer officers than it had two or three years ago.

Rob Lewis told the board the Code Enforcement Office was going through the regular process to hire one more full-time employee; that position was in the proposed FY 2013 budget, he said, while the extra position considered for Siesta Village was not in the budget.

“Unless we have a motion [to hire an extra code enforcement officer],” Robinson said, “we’re going to move on.” She paused, but none of the commissioners made a motion.

“Hearing none,” Robinson said, “let’s move on.”