From the editorial archives: Governing by angry mob

Editor’s Note: From time to time we will rerun editorials from our archives. The decision to do so is largely influenced by two factors: The subject of the editorial is once again timely because of current news; and the editorial in question won a journalism award.

The following editorial, first published in our Oct. 11, 2013 edition, explored the unhappy tendency of the Sarasota City Commission to meekly reverse itself, or its surrogates, when a decision evoked grassroots outrage. Since the editorial’s publication, the most egregious example of this practice was when the City Commission voted to rescind its staff’s permission for the Woman’s Exchange to construct a loading area to complement the nonprofit’s planned expansion, because an angry mob demanded the commission do so. Today that example has been surpassed by the City Commission reversing itself, yet again … this time with regard to plans by private developers to renovate and improve the facilities at the Lido Beach Pavilion and Pool. As in the past, an angry mob demanded the City Commission undo a prior action. Instead, the developers saw the proverbial handwriting on the wall, and threw in the towel.

Readers also likely will experience a sense of déjà vu when they realize that the City Commission recently committed itself — again — to installing parking meters in downtown Sarasota … at least until the angry mob demands the meters’ removal.

As observed more than five years ago, the Sarasota City Commission displays an uncomfortable similarity to seaweed, bending whichever way the currents of public outrage dictate.

Recently, we applauded Sarasota Vice Mayor Willie Shaw and Commissioners Susan Chapman and Suzanne Atwell for adding the revisiting of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law to the city’s list of legislative priorities. There are occasions when such a simple majority can provide positive leadership for the city’s residents.

However, the City Commission in general — and this majority in particular — has demonstrated a dismaying propensity to kow- tow to every angry mob that shows up in the commission’s chambers.

For example, only a few years ago the City Commission undertook a study of downtown parking and concluded that charging for street parking would increase turnover and provide more spaces for shoppers who needed a spot for only a short while. The board even spent more than $1 million to install sophisticated electronic parking meters for those who wished to park on downtown streets.

There was outrage, of course … mostly from downtown business owners and employees who no longer could economically park in front of their establishments. They formed the core of an angry mob that stormed City Hall to demand the removal of the parking meters. At some of those appearances, the members of the angry mob even wore paper sacks over their heads, ostensibly to call metaphorically for “bagging” the meters … not, one imagines, to preserve their anonymity.

The City Commission, by a 3-2 vote, caved in to their demands and removed all parking meters, forfeiting almost all of the taxpayers’ dollars spent on those expensive meters. The angry mob carried the day.

Then there was the proposal to build a Walmart Supercenter in the derelict Ringling Shopping Center. The store would occupy essentially the same footprint as the previous establishments there, would bring much-needed commercial diversity to that section of downtown and provide walking-distance employment for some of the residents in the area. For these and many other reasons, the city’s planning staff endorsed the proposal and recommended approval, even finding that the store complied with existing zoning.

Later, the city’s Planning Commission reviewed the request and agreed with the planning staff, approving Walmart’s plans and paving the way for construction to begin.

Cue the angry mob.

Residents in nearby neighborhoods rallied against the proposal and stormed City Hall, demanding that the City Commission override the Planning Commission and send Walmart packing.

Once again, the City Commission caved in to those demands, voting 3-2 to reverse their own planning professionals and the Planning Commission … and thumbed their noses at the economic benefits Walmart might bring to a blighted portion of downtown (which, incidentally, is even more blighted today). Another victory for the angry mob.

The latest example of the City Commission’s malleability comes with the request of restaurateur Chris Brown to significantly modify the exterior of the old Kress Building, which he recently purchased with plans to open an upscale restaurant.

His architect designed New Orleans-style galleries to create an open-air second floor above the sidewalk. Had the design been approved, it would have created some of the most sought-after seating among downtown dining establishments, affording those lucky enough to sit there an expansive view of Five Points and beyond. It also would have helped Brown create a new restaurant downtown that would have raised everyone’s game … the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats.

Cue the angry mob.

This time it was predominantly rich, elderly retirees who live in luxurious downtown condos who objected. Somehow, when they were considering their condo purchases, they seized upon the notion that the center of a city would be a quiet place to enjoy their twilight years. The shock of actually finding it rather noisy in the center of a bustling downtown has been a source of constant irascibility for them.

While most of us might spend our evenings at home watching television or reading books, these downtown denizens like to stand on the balconies of their luxury high rises, iPhones in hand, and hope that some of the ambient noise drifting up to them will trigger their sound-meter apps. Then they can call the police — anonymously — and complain about the noise.

They feared a popular restaurant in the heart of downtown, particularly with a balcony for al fresco dining, would generate too much noise and disturb their early-evening slumber.

Of course, they also objected to Brown’s architectural choice, claiming that a Bourbon Street style would look out of place in the downtown area … apparently not seeing the irony of how even more out of place huge steel-and-concrete monoliths are in our city center.

So the angry mob stormed City Hall and demanded that the City Commission reject Chris Brown’s request out of hand. And a cowed majority of the commission dutifully voted, 3-2, to do just that. The Sepulchral Set downtown had scored yet another victory against normal human activity along Main Street.

Brown’s proposal certainly was unusual and unprecedented. However, it marked a freshness of vision that sadly is lacking in downtown. Had it been approved and built, the restaurant would have set a new standard for quality dining in the city.

Alas, it ran afoul of the angry mob … the true force that governs the City of Sarasota.

The nation currently is in the grip of a constitutional crisis because Congress, which has the approval of only 5 percent of the people, is blithely ignoring the wishes of its constituents.

Meanwhile, the Sarasota City Commission seems to bend whenever a strong wind blows through City Hall.

Surely, for the sake of progress and good governance, there must be a happy medium.