Majority of speakers at City Commission meeting decry plaintiffs’ offer to pay $275,000 for section of the facility
Faced with what he said he understood to be “a significant amount of correspondence” submitted to the Sarasota city commissioners shortly before their regular meeting on Dec. 6 — which his clients had not been able to review — the attorney who had proposed a lawsuit settlement involving the city’s sale of part of Paul Thorpe Jr. Park asked the commissioners to continue the discussion to a future date.
On a unanimous vote, the board members agreed to do that.
“I think it’s only fair to grant [a continuance],” Commissioner Liz Alpert said in making the motion, if that was what the parties wanted.
However, the commissioners also agreed to listen to members of the public who had signed up to address them on the settlement offer. “I think hearing the testimony today also will be helpful,” Alpert added.
By count of The Sarasota News Leader, 19 of the 23 speakers urged the board members to keep all of the taxpayer-owned greenspace in downtown Sarasota. A number of them voiced outrage that the settlement proposal — $275,000 in cash — even had been made to City Attorney Robert Fournier.
Speakers indicated that the offer could entail as much as half of the park.
Among the plaintiffs, EDM-Sarasota LLC, has plans to construct a food court on that parkland. EDM-Sarasota owns the Northern Trust building standing at 1515 Ringling Blvd., adjacent to the city property, the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records show.
As The Sarasota News Leader has reported, one of the principals of EDM-Sarasota is Jonathan Mitchell, whose grandfather founded EDM Realty Partners of New York City. Mitchell has been critical of the city commissioners, as evidenced by blogs he has written or co-written on a website called “Best SRQ.”
Two other limited liability companies are plaintiffs with EDM-Sarasota LLC in the lawsuit.
Among those who addressed the commissioners on Dec. 6 was Elizabeth Davis. She identified herself as the daughter-in-law of the late Paul Thorpe Jr., who was known as “Mr. Downtown” for his decades of dedication to improving downtown Sarasota and making it a draw for residents.
“It was just such an honor for Paul … to have the park dedicated for him before he died,” Davis said, her voice breaking. She noted the renovations and additions to the facility on Lemon Avenue, near the State Street parking garage. Davis added that she appreciated the comments others had offered earlier about Thorpe’s efforts to create many beloved city events, including the Farmers Market, the Downtown Sarasota Holiday Parade, the Pineapple Drop on New Year’s Eve; the July 4 fireworks on the bayfront; and the summer boat races off Lido Key.
She told the commissioners that she feels that they “are going to do the right thing … and keep the park for the city …”
Another speaker, Mary Fuerst, chair of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Environmental Protection (PREP) Advisory Board, reminded the commissioners that numerous community meetings were conducted before the park was renovated several years ago. She was present for the rededication of it, she added. “It is a beautiful, beautiful design. It is a wonderful example of what a pocket park should be. … Taking parkland just doesn’t go down well with any citizen,” Fuerst said. “It’s land we need.”
“What kind of state of affairs are we [in] in the city when interests like this think they have a shot at getting something as offensive as this?” attorney Dan Lobeck, a city resident who is president of a nonprofit group called Control Growth Now, asked the commissioners.
Dr. Robert Salisbury, who noted that he practiced dentistry in the city for more than 30 years, said, “I am personally offended by the offer that’s been presented to you. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Lance Disley, a resident of The Mark condominium complex near Paul Thorpe Jr. Park, read the city’s Vision Statement: “To be a world class community and treasured destination with enduring natural beauty, charm and diversity.” Disley added, “Thorpe Park is a perfect example of a realization of that vision …”
Near the end of the discussion that day, Commissioner Hagen Brody said of the settlement offer, “This is a little bit out of the ordinary, how this came to the commission.” He added that he wanted “to dispel any sense” of underhandedness.
A change of stance rebuffed
At the conclusion of all the public remarks, which took about an hour, William Merrill III of the Icard Merrill firm in Sarasota told the commissioners that his clients would be willing to proceed with their presentation. He did acknowledge that that would be “a little unusual,” after the board members had voted for the continuance.
City Attorney Fournier immediately pointed out to the commissioners that he did not believe it would be fair for that presentation to take place, as people might have chosen not to offer comments on the issue, knowing that it had been continued.
Brody asked whether those persons who addressed the board that day should be allowed to speak again, after the settlement presentation has been made in the future.
They should be able to comment on whatever Merrill and his clients have to say, whenever that presentation takes place, Fournier replied. “You could have decided to wait on the public input today,” Fournier told the commissioners. “You didn’t.”
Fournier added, “You do have a legal obligation to let everybody speak that wants to before you vote.”
Before Mayor Erik Arroyo called the names of the first group of speakers on Dec. 6, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch did request that Fournier tell the commissioners his view about the likely outcome of the lawsuit, if it proceeded on the docket of the Second District Court of Appeal.
Fournier explained that 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Andrea McHugh ruled in favor of the city on three points in the lawsuit. However, he explained, “Any one of those standing alone” would have been sufficient for her to issue her opinion that the city owns the property that was at the heart of the litigation that began in August 2017.
If the appeal continues, Fournier said, it is his understanding that the Second District Court of Appeal would have to find in favor of the plaintiffs on all three points before reversing McHugh’s ruling and sending the case back to her.
“I would say that the [city’s] chances of prevailing on appeal are high,” he told the commissioners.
Proponents of the sale rebuffed
Among those speakers this week who advocated for the sale of part of the park, Nancy Platkin told the commissioners that she walks her dogs by the facility about six times a day. “I never see any downtown citizens except for vagrants in that park,” she said.
Revitalizing the area, Platkin added, would rid it of vagrancy.
Richard Lynch talked of how restaurateur Danny Meyer in New York City “single-handedly reversed the failures of Madison Square Park [in Manhattan]” by opening the first Shake Shack restaurant there.
Lynch added that he had attended two meetings during which Mitchell of EDM-Sarasota had talked about his vision for the food court, if the City Commission approved the sale of part of Paul Thorpe Park to settle the lawsuit. He supports Mitchell’s plans, Lynch said, noting that he finds Thorpe Park to be “woefully underused.”
Later speakers disputed Platkin’s and Lynch’s characterizations of Thorpe Park.
In fact, one city resident, Barbara Campo, presented a petition to the commissioners with a multitude of signatures that she said she gathered during three hours at the park on Sunday, Dec. 5.
Her favorite signee, she indicated, was a 5-year-old boy.
“I don’t know how anyone can say they go to the park and nobody is there,” Campo said. “These people magically appeared on a Sunday afternoon? I don’t think so.”