County commissioners decline to allow county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Oversight Committee to expand its purview

After indicating willingness in late August to broaden committee’s responsibilities, board members on Jan. 18 reverse course

Typically, the Sarasota County Commission approves its Consent Agenda of routine business matters with no comments. Occasionally, however, one of the board members will pull an item for discussion. That was the case on Jan. 18, when Commissioner Michael Moran put a figurative spotlight on an issue regarding the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Oversight Committee (ESLOC).

As explained in the board’s agenda packet for that regular meeting, the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR) staff had proposed a new resolution outlining the duties of that county advisory board.

Among its “Whereas” clauses, the draft resolution referenced a commission discussion that took place during the regular board meeting on Aug. 30, 2022, the first session since the commissioners’ month-long summer recess.

That clause noted that the discussion — and board consensus — was “to modify the scope and duties of ESLOC, and this resolution incorporates expansion of duties to include other environmental lands in addition to those lands acquired through [the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP].”

That program first won voter approval during a 1999 referendum. At that time, citizens agreed that the ESLPP would be funded by a 0.25-mill ad valorem tax collected through 2019. The money would be used to acquire, protect and manage environmentally sensitive lands.

Then, in November 2005, voters approved a second referendum, authorizing the continued levy of the property tax, with part of the revenue to be dedicated to helping pay for county acquisition of neighborhood parklands. The tax is in effect through 2029, the county website says.

A county staff memo that also was included in the Jan. 18 agenda packet explained that the ad valorem revenue the county collects through the program first is used to pay for the program’s debt. “The remaining revenue is allocated to acquisition and maintenance,” the memo said.

After the board members on Jan. 18 had approved the remainder of the Consent Agenda, Commissioner Moran said he was hopeful that he and his colleagues could have “a little deeper conversation” on the proposed expansion of the ESLOC’s responsibilities.

“This is a very specific board with a very specific mission with a very specific, clear understanding that it is to hear the public related to acquisition [of land] with those very specific funds” raised by the tax,” Moran stressed.

“Boy,” he continued, “it feels like mission creep to me to expand [the board’s duties].”

Moran was absent from the County Commission meeting on Aug. 30, 2022, when the issue of expanding the ESLOC’s responsibilities arose during then-Commissioner Christian Ziegler’s board report.

Ziegler noted at that time that Jono Miller, long-time chair of the ESLOC, had talked with him about the issue. The ESLOC members, as Ziegler phrased it, were “looking for a little bit more of an ability to provide comment” on properties that the county was considering purchasing with revenue other than the money generated by the 0.25-mill tax.

Ziegler added that he believed Miller had talked with the other commissioners, as well.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis explained that the idea had been raised in the past. Lewis added that he believed Miller had the support of the ESLOC members in discussing the issue with the commissioners, though he was not certain.

If the commissioners wanted staff to revise the ordinance governing the work of the ESLOC to broaden its responsibilities, Lewis said, he would take care of that.

Ziegler responded that he had told Miller only that he would bring it up, as Ziegler had not “really looked into [the proposal].”

Then-Chair Alan Maio pointed out that he was the commission representative on the ESLOC. The advisory board members “feel that, with the array of talent that’s there, they want to be allowed to comment on properties” outside the scope of the ESLPP.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger said. “It brings just additional talent and expertise to the process. … [The ESLOC members have] done a great job,” he added. “I’d love to see them on board for … the additional properties, as well.”
Following the remarks, Maio told Lewis it appeared that Lewis had board consensus for staff to draft a revised ordinance.

The Jan. 18 opposition

During the Jan. 18 discussion, Commissioner Moran pointed out that Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson had contacted him the previous night to let him know that a revised version of the resolution that had been the focus of the Consent Agenda item omitted the expansion of the scope of work for the ESLOC.

“I would agree with Commissioner Moran” in regard to the “mission creep” issue, Commissioner Nancy Detert said. “I think it’s a major change in policy that we need to walk a little slower on and do a little more prep [before approving any modifications].”
She added that it would be fine with her if the vote on the resolution were delayed. “Then we could work with staff to see what the consequences of the change mean going forward.”

Commissioner Mark Smith also concurred with Moran. “I’m new,” Smith said, referencing his November 2022 election to the commission, “but I was a little taken aback by the expansion of the [ESLOC] role.

He, too, would like to discuss that proposal before voting on it, Smith added.

Then Nicole Rissler, director of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), which works with the ESLOC members, stepped to the podium. She pointed out that, the previous night, Assistant County Administrator Johnson had distributed a copy of the proposed, revised resolution to each commissioner. That version did omit the language about expanding the ESLOC’s scope of work, she noted.

The updated resolution was drafted for a variety of reasons, she continued. Among them was the necessity of what she referred to as “a lot of clean-up,” along with the need to omit any requirement for newspaper advertisements.

(As The Sarasota News Leader reported in its Jan. 27 issue, starting this month, the county website will begin hosting most of the legal notices that the county had been publishing in newspapers. The goal of the creation of the new webpages is to save money, county staff and the board members themselves have emphasized.)

Rissler put the revised copy of the resolution on an overhead screen, so all of the commissioners and anyone else in the chambers in the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice could see it.

The only other question Rissler fielded from a commissioner came from Detert, who asked whether the two ESLOC seats reserved for students in the STAR program were filled.

Rissler said they were.

With no other questions or discussion, Commissioner Moran made the motion to approve the new version of the resolution, and Commissioner Joe Neunder seconded it.

“I think it’s incredibly clear what the intent of [the ESLOC] is,” Moran said.

The motion then passed unanimously.

Reaffirming the goal for the 2023 fiscal year

Almost exactly two weeks later, Miller, chair of the ESLOC, appeared before the commissioners during their regular meeting on Jan. 31 to deliver the annual report for the advisory committee.

A copy of the report was included in the agenda packet, as well. The document pointed out that it covered the period of Dec. 6, 2021 through Dec. 1, 2022.

Under the heading Actions, Motions and Outcomes, one item said, “April 7, 2022 — Moved to direct chair and staff to meet individually with the members of the Sarasota County commission to provide rationale why ESLOC members should be able to comment on all environmentally sensitive lands within Sarasota County.”

Then, under the heading ESLOC Focus for Fiscal Year 2023, which began on Oct. 1, 2022, an item said, “Amend ESLOC purview to include all County environmental lands.”

During his presentation to the board members on Jan. 31, Miller noted that goal as he showed them PowerPoint slides. “We continue to think that’s important to explore,” Miller said.

When he completed his remarks, he asked whether anyone had questions of comments for him.

None of the commissioners did.

“Great job,” Chair Cutsinger told Miller.