Downtown Improvement District request for change in board membership qualifications fails to win majority support from City Commission

Mayor and vice mayor also stress need for new people on that board before approving application by Voelker of State Street Eating House

This graphic shows the boundaries of the Downtown Improvement District in the city of Sarasota. Image from the DID website

First, the majority of the Sarasota city commissioners this week denied a request from the city’s Downtown Improvement District (DID) board for a change in the ordinance that governs the advisory group’s membership qualifications.

Then the majority of the city commissioners declined to reappoint the DID chair who had presented the proposal.

Both Mayor Hagen Brody and Vice Mayor Erik Arroyo emphasized the need for new people to serve on the DID. However, they did join Commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Liz Alpert in commending the two DID board members who were seeking reappointment that evening.

During the commission’s regular meeting on March 1, DID Chair Ernest Ritz reported that, on Dec. 1, 2020, the members of the advisory group discussed whether their board should seek a revision to the Downtown Improvement District ordinance to reflect language in the guidelines for service on the St. Armands Business Improvement District board.

As noted in the minutes of the DID board’s Jan. 5 session, the St. Armands Business Improvement District (BID) ordinance says, “At no time may more than two Directors be an active merchant within the District (while also being a property owner within the District). In order to qualify as a merchant owner, the merchant’s interest in the ownership entity must be at least a 25% beneficial ownership and the merchant owner must have managing member or executive authority in the ownership entity. Notwithstanding the foregoing cap of two merchant owner directors, the City Commission may appoint a third merchant owner if, and only if, the City Commission is unable to obtain a qualified non-merchant owner to fill a Director’s vacant seat.”

The DID’s website points out that its governing board comprises five members appointed by the City Commission. Each DID board member must be a non-residential property owner subject to ad valorem taxation within the district.

These were the DID board members before the City Commission vote on March 1. Image from the DID website

The city levies up to 2 mills of ad valorem tax in the district each year, the website notes.

The Jan. 5 DID meeting minutes added, “A motion was made by Member [Mark] Kauffman and 2nd by Member [Ron] Soto to amend the DID ordinance to limit the number of Board of Directors also being an active merchant to a quantity of two. Motion approved 5 to 0.”

“It’s our attempt to keep the Downtown Improvement District a property owners group, rather than another merchants association group,” Ritz explained to the city commissioners. The city already has a downtown merchants organization, he pointed out.

After voting unanimously to accept the DID report, Mayor Brody told his colleagues, “I don’t think we should take a motion to do anything right now [about the DID board’s proposal for the ordinance revision]. I think it’s a little, just premature.”

When Commissioner Ahearn-Koch questioned the decision, Brody replied, “I’m personally not in favor of [the change].”

However, he told her she could make a motion, if she chose to do so.

Therefore, Ahearn-Koch’s motion directed the city attorney’s office to draft the ordinance revision as the DID board had requested.

Commissioner Alpert seconded the motion.

Both the DID and the BID impose taxes on the property owners in their districts, Ahearn-Koch pointed out. “They come to us for approval of how to spend [the funds], but they’re really the experts …”

City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch participates in the Jan. 4 meeting via remote technology. File image

She called the DID board makeup in the proposed ordinance change “a fine balance.”

Alpert concurred. “There’s already a merchants association,” she added, “so [the DID board] doesn’t need to be a merchants association.”

Moreover, Alpert said of the DID board members, “If they feel like that’s the better way to run their board … we should … go along with that …”

When Brody called on Commissioner Kyle Scott Battie, Battie started to say he agreed with one of his colleagues, but he stopped short of citing the name and looked at Alpert. Then, with a laugh, Alpert told him her last name, but she named Ahearn-Koch, too.

Battie finally announced that he agreed “with what Commissioner Alpert said.” If the change was what the DID board members wanted, he added, “I’m on board with it.”

When Brody called on the vice mayor, Arroyo told his colleagues that the proposed DID revision “will impact dozens and dozens of self-taxing people in the Downtown Improvement District. … Have they been afforded an opportunity to voice their concerns over this? … They’re potentially being limited from not joining this board,” Arroyo emphasized.

In fact, he noted, two appointments to the DID were scheduled just a short while later on the agenda.

In response to a question from Brody, DID Chair Ritz noted that two of the DID board members are merchants.

Brody talked of his interest in seeing the DID board comprise members who are both downtown property owners and merchants. “I like the fact that they have to operate in the market, in the real world, on Main Street, to make a living.”

Furthermore, Brody said, “We would restrict our own ability to appoint some of these people if we were in a position where this ordinance [revision] were adopted. I don’t think that’s right.”

The DID board guidelines already make it difficult for people to apply to serve, he continued, and the board “wants to make it tougher.”

Ernest Ritz addresses the commissioners on March 1. News Leader image

Addressing Ritz, Brody added, “A lot of the members, sir, have been there a very long time and … I think we need to make sure we have the broadest possible pool of applicants.”

Then City Attorney Robert Fournier pointed out that, as he understood the proposed amendment, it would limit the number of merchants to two, “but you’d still have to own non-residential property.”

“I understand,” Brody responded, adding, “I just think that limits our pool and boxes out a lot of folks that might be interested [in serving on the DID board].”

After City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs called the roll for votes on Ahearn-Koch’s motion, Brody announced that it had failed 2-3. Battie joined Brody and Arroyo in opposing it.

The DID appointments

When time came for the DID board appointments during the March 1 meeting, Ahearn-Koch nominated Ritz and Dr. Kauffman.

“When we have a board member who has served well,” she explained, “and they want to be reappointed and are qualified, we typically do that.”

Both Ritz and Kauffman have been involved in downtown Sarasota “for a very long time,” she added, and they are highly respected.

Commissioner Alpert concurred with Ahearn-Koch’s nominations.

Battie, however, nominated Chris Voelker, owner and operator of State Street Eating House + Cocktails; and Justin Banister, CEO of O & A Coffee and Supply, a “coffee shop, catering business and roaster,” as Banister noted in his application.

Arroyo voiced support for Voelker and Banister.

Justin Banister of O & A Coffee and Supply is shown in a still from a Sarasota Farmers Market video. Image courtesy Sarasota Farmers Market

Battie told his colleagues that he had spoken with Voelker, with whom he once worked. However, he noted, “I like Dr. Kauffman a lot.”

Then Arroyo said, “When I graduated college, I had a difficult time trying to find a part-time job,” as he did not have experience but was told he needed experience for the positions for which he applied. “It was kind of a Catch-22 [situation],” he added, which he likened to the DID board appointments. People have been trying to get on that board for years, Arroyo stressed, and have been unable to do so.

Referencing Ahearn-Koch’s earlier remarks, Arroyo added, “Now we’re telling people … [that DID board members] automatically should get to serve again? … That’s the worst argument you can make, in history.”

He voiced great respect for Ritz and Kauffman, noting that Kauffman “deserves a street named after him. …He has done more for Sarasota than anybody that I know that owns commercial property downtown right now.”

Regardless of his high opinions of the two men, Arroyo continued, he not want to see them reappointed to the DID board.

The DID does represent downtown merchants, Arroyo pointed out, “and no other merchants have been allowed to be a part of that board … We’ve sort of created our own exclusive little club, and I think it’s time that we change that.”

Taking his turn, Brody told his colleagues, “I will agree with just about everything that has been said.”

While Ritz was one of the founding members of the DID board, Brody noted, Ritz has been on the board for eight years; Kauffman, 10 years.

Brody added that he believes Voelker “would bring a very fresh set of eyes, a lot of energy, a lot of great ideas. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have someone on [the DID board] who runs a restaurant, who runs a bar … Her bottom line is affected by [the downtown] environment …”

Brody then pointed out that Banister “has one of the most unique stories in downtown Sarasota.” He installed a coffee kiosk on the side of a street “and built [his product] into a brand that the community loved.” Banister transitioned eventually into a brick-and-motor business.

“In my mind,” Brody continued, “that is the path that we should be encouraging, that we should be rewarding …”

When Brody asked City Auditor and Clerk Griggs to poll the commissioners on the nominees, only Ahearn-Koch and Alpert supported Ritz. Then Ahearn-Koch, Alpert and Battie voted for Kauffman, with Brody and Arroyo opposing that nomination.

Ahearn-Koch was the only commissioner to vote against Voelker, so Voelker was appointed to the DID board on a 4-1 vote.