County staff member rebuked for including information on transportation priority list denoting commission districts in which projects would be built

Commissioner Moran indicates that when he asked about district information, he meant for it to remain private

Paula Wggins. Rachel Hackney photo

Since Sarasota County voters on Nov. 6 approved a County Charter amendment instituting single-member districts, commissioners from time to time have joked about looking out for their own constituents in the future.

This week, however, county Transportation Planning Manager Paula Wiggins received a rebuke from Chair Nancy Detert about listing commission districts on a graphic, showing where future transportation projects are planned.

Commissioner Michael Moran indicated he was the one who asked for the district information; he did so the previous day,  during a meeting with Wiggins. “That’s private conversations between commissioners and staff,” he said, after first Commissioner Alan Maio and then Detert clear made their disapproval of the inclusion of the information on the slide in a presentation Wiggins was making.

Wiggins was appearing before the commission on Dec. 11 to review staff’s recommendations for county transportation priorities for consideration first by the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and then by the Florida Legislature, as well as the federal government. Those priorities that win MPO endorsement are expected to be included in the Florida Department of Transportation’s work program for fiscal years 2020-21 through 2024-25.

Although the commission had just adopted its latest priority list in June, Wiggins explained, changes in the MPO process necessitated the commission review and approve the list for 2019 on an earlier timeline than in the past.

A Dec. 11 memo from county staff to the commission pointed out that the MPO’s deadline for receipt of the list is Dec. 17. The commission’s last regular meetings for the year were held this week.

The memo said, “The MPO Board is expected to consider the Sarasota County priorities along with those from other jurisdictions” at its meeting in June 2019. “The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) staff will use the priorities during the Fall 2019 project selection and program development process for the work program that will go into effect July 1, 2020,” the memo added.

After Wiggins reviewed staff’s recommendations and noted proposed changes since June, Commissioner Maio asked, “Why did we put districts on this graphic? … It begins to beget consternation.”

He pointed out that all the commissioners have advocated for the planned improvements to River Road as their top transportation priority. “Somebody in the future could just say that this was something given to District 3,” Maio added, as the River Road projects are all located within the District 3 boundaries.

“Everyone here ran countywide,” Maio noted.

This is the language of the new amendment to the Sarasota County Charter regarding Single Member Districts. It was approved by voters on Nov. 6 Image courtesy Sarasota county

As a result of the Nov. 6 approval of the Single Member Districts Charter amendment, a citizen during the next election will be able to vote only for the County Commission candidates who reside in the same district where that voter lives. Previously, each citizen has been able to cast a ballot in every County Commission race, regardless of which district seats have been open. The Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections worked to get the Single Member Districts measure on the Nov. 6 ballot, saying the change in how the board members are elected will lead to less expensive campaigns and encourage the board members to provide better service to their constituents.

In response to Maio’s Dec. 11 comments, Wiggins said only that the direction for inclusion of the district information was provided to her during a one-on-one discussion with a commissioner the previous day.

Commissioner Mike Moran. File photo

Board members routinely talk of meeting individually with staff members before the board members address issues during their meetings, so the board members have an opportunity to gain as much information as possible about those issues.

“I would agree with Commissioner Maio,” Detert told Wiggins. Including the district information on the MPO priorities chart “starts to separate us from having an overall concern about the county. We may devolve to that eventually,” Detert continued, “but I don’t want that to be the starting position.”

Detert added, “Roads don’t stop at the end of the district; they continue on.”

“Understood,” Wiggins said.

Then Detert asked whether her colleagues concurred with her and Maio’s view.

“Yes, I totally agree,” Moran replied. The district information is not needed on the list, he added.

The new list

This is the 2019 MPO priority list the County Commission approved this week. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As Wiggins explained on Dec. 11, the only new project on the 2019 priority list is a proposed interchange at Interstate 75 and Yorkshire Street in North Port. Detert noted that the County Commission had agreed to support the North Port Commission’s desire to add that project to the list.

Wiggins pointed out that staff also had added, as Priority No. 5, extra money for the North Extension of The Legacy Trail. The funds would be used for an overpass of Clark Road in Sarasota County, she indicated.

As commissioners learned several years ago during planning for the overpass of Laurel Road, the structures have to be able to support the weight of — as Commission Maio has characterized it — “a fully loaded emergency vehicle,” in the event someone at the apex of an overpass needs medical attention.

More than 70% of the county voters who cast ballots in a Nov. 6 referendum approved the county’s issuance of $65 million in bonds for The Legacy Trail. The money will cover the purchase of the final segment of CSX Transportation railroad right of way from Ashton Road to Fruitville Road in Sarasota; Trail connections through Venice to North Port; and the necessary improvements to railroad right of way to create the full North Extension from Culverhouse Nature Park on Palmer Ranch to Fruitville Road.

Additionally, staff recommended that a Lorraine Road project be moved up from No. 13 on the 2018 MPO priority list to No. 7 in 2019. That calls for the construction of a new segment from Fruitville Road to Palmer Boulevard, the county staff memo said.

Lorraine Road formerly was known as Iona Road, Wiggins pointed out to the board.

This map shows the area of the U.S. 41 Corridor Study that FDOT recently undertook. Image courtesy FDOT

And while Wiggins mentioned that a project listed at the intersection of U.S. 41 and I-75 referred to a roundabout, county staff later confirmed for The Sarasota News Leader that FDOT has nixed the proposal for a roundabout at that intersection. City of Sarasota Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw reported to the City Commission last week that FDOT staff felt a roundabout would not be able to function well at that location, given the volume of traffic. Instead, the project on the list for the MPO will entail improvements to the intersection, DavisShaw noted.

(The City Commission approved its MPO priorities on Dec. 3.)

In response to a News Leader question about the proposed improvements at U.S. 41 and University Parkway, Brian Rick, public information specialist for FDOT’s District One, wrote in a Dec. 12 email that a study undertaken by the department “does propose to add a 2nd westbound to southbound left turn lane, a 2nd westbound to northbound right turn lane, and a northbound to eastbound right turn lane.  The study also proposes to straighten the crosswalk on the east leg of the intersection, and add a new pedestrian crosswalk on the north leg of the intersection.”

With no county board member suggesting a change in the priorities staff proposed on Dec. 11, Detert asked for a motion. Maio called for approval of the list, and Moran seconded the motion. It passed unanimously.