Candidates debate care of the environment, residential growth, redistricting and other topics
During a Sarasota Tiger Bay Club debate, County Commissioner Nancy Detert and her opponent in the District 3 race, Cory Hutchinson of North Port, drew a number of distinctions between themselves.
Looking ahead to the Nov. 3 General Election, Hutchinson, a Democrat, is seeking to defeat Republican Detert in what she told the Tiger Bay Club audience would be her final race. She served on the Sarasota County School Board and in the Florida House and Senate before her election to the commission in November 2016.
The candidates covered a wide array of issues in slightly more than an hour on Sept. 17, with Jennifer Vigne, president and CEO of the Education Foundation of Sarasota County, serving as moderator.
Among points on which they differed Hutchinson emphasized the need to revise the county’s 2050 Plan for development east of Interstate 75 to allow residents to “keep the country, country,” referencing a rallying cry for opponents of intense residential construction on the eastern end of Fruitville Road. (See the related article in this issue.)
He also argued that the county’s impact fees should be set at 100%. “This ensures taxpayers are not subsidizing any new development …”
Originally, Detert said, I-75 “was supposed to be the line of demarcation” between the urban part of the county and the more rural areas. “You were supposed to have infill first,” she continued, referring to building new developments on open sites west of the interstate.
“But everybody went out [east] anyway,” she added.
Still, she pointed out, “Probably a third of the county will be kept pristine,” thanks to an annual, voter-approved assessment that provides revenue for the county to purchase environmentally sensitive lands and space for new parks.
Detert also claimed that she was “the tie vote to save the Celery Fields, “so I’m very proud of that.”
In August 2017, the commissioners voted 3-2 to deny three petitions that would have allowed TST Ventures of Sarasota to build a construction and yard-waste recycling facility on a county parcel adjacent to the Celery Fields. Detert ultimately made the motion to deny all three petitions. However, that followed then-Chair Paul Caragiulo’s vote against a motion by Commissioner Michal Moran to approve the first petition.
Hutchinson also talked on Sept. 17 of the need to focus on the environment, including improved water quality and encouraging use of solar energy.
“We have seen millions of gallons of sewage spill into our water,” he continued. “If our environment fails, our economy will go down with it.”
(Last year, three nonprofit organizations filed a federal lawsuit over county spills dating back to September 2015. Some of the incidents involved raw sewage or partially treated sewage, the complaint pointed out, providing documentation of the events. In early September 2019, the commission voted to settle that case.)
During the Sept. 17 debate, Detert pointed to the commission’s willingness to invest what she said would be $300 million in new infrastructure to convert the county’s wastewater treatment plants into advanced wastewater treatment (AWT) facilities. (In early July, Mike Mylett, director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, reported the latest estimate for the conversion of the Bee Ridge Wastewater Treatment Facility was $182 million, including design work. No formal estimates have been provided to the board for the expense of the transition of the Venice Gardens and Central County wastewater treatment facilities to AWT.)
Hutchinson said during the debate that if the commissioners had engaged in proper planning in the past, they would not be facing such high bills for remediation.
Detert retorted that most of the spills involved treated wastewater.
Additionally, last year, commissioners contended that staff failed to inform them about the problems, indicating that staff was fearful of coming to them with high estimates for needed repairs. (In April 2019, then-Public Utilities Director Scott Schroyer left county employment. County Administrator Jonathan Lewis named Mylett interim director and later director, with the commission’s support.)
Hutchinson also talked of the need for transparency in land development issues, citing the fact that other local governments have websites that are much easier to navigate than the county’s when it comes to searching for applications. “We don’t want to have hurdles in place, [forcing people] to click through seven different things,” he said, to find what they are seeking.
Detert countered, “I think the general public is not really interested in all that … material.”
She added that staff also places advertisements in the newspaper about upcoming rezoning hearings. “We’re highly transparent,” Detert said.
“You wouldn’t change anything?” moderator Vigne asked Detert.
“I think we’re doing it in every media,” Detert replied.
However, Hutchinson noted “declining newspaper usage” as a factor supporting the need for county website improvements.
Hutchinson also said that, if elected, “I plan to host many town halls,” both in person and virtually, to allow residents to address issues that are important to them, including land-development proposals.
Opposing viewpoints on 2019 redistricting
Two related, major points on which Detert and Hutchinson differed regarded their perception of the Single-Member Districts Charter amendment that voters approved during the November 2018 General Election and the County Commission’s redistricting action last year.
“Our community spoke and said, ‘We don’t want this,’” Hutchinson pointed out of the redistricting initiative, “and [the commissioners] did it anyway.”
Although the county prevailed in a federal lawsuit filed over the process, Hutchinson continued, the presiding judge called the redistricting “political hardball.”
The initiative should have waited until after the 2020 Census results were available, Hutchinson added, noting that the Census numbers are the most accurate when it comes to population data.
“What you just heard is just out of the political party that he attends,” Detert said, referring to Hutchinson’s registration as a Democrat. While voters may have approved single-member districts, she continued, “I don’t think it’s a great idea.”
With three seats up for election this year, Detert said, residents of two districts “won’t get to vote for any county commissioner. … Under our old system, everybody in the county would have voted for three.”
Earlier, Detert pointed out, Vigne had asked for the candidates’ views on the proposed Bay Sarasota project, which seeks to transform 53 City of Sarasota bayfront acres into a public park with arts and cultural amenities. (Detert supports it; Hutchinson replied that he opposes it “at this time.” The county board has discussed allocating an estimated $92 million in county property tax revenue over 30 years to help pay for it, instead of using that money for county services and infrastructure.)
Since District 3 comprises most of Venice and part of North Port, Detert pointed out during the debate, “We don’t have to care about the bayfront project anymore. … I only have to love stuff in Venice or North Port. You see the problem there? We’re going to be very territorial.”
Redistricting was necessary, Detert added, because of the growth in the population in South County. As long as all the commissioners represented the entire county, she continued, that was not an issue. With single-member districts having gone into effect as of the 2020 election, Detert said, the districts needed to have population totals as close to equal as possible.
The Florida Statutes say “you have to come as close to zero difference as you can possibly get,” Detert stressed.
Redistricting, she continued, “brings out all kinds of people wearing T-shirts and carrying a sign.”
During the process, she invited everyone to submit a proposed new map, Detert added, even hand-drawn maps. “I expected to see a map from the League of Women Voters. Didn’t get one.” The county’s Democratic Party did not submit one, either, she said.
Hutchinson pointed out, “Fourteen out of the 16 largest counties in Florida use a single-member district system … If you get good elected officials,” he added, “they will care about every aspect of the county.”
Moreover, Hutchinson said, “Those people in T-shirts that were waving signs … were disrespected at every opportunity.”
Other claims and counter arguments
As Vigne moved on to questions from the audience, former Sarasota City Commissioner Ken Shelin asked, “Why hasn’t Sarasota County adopted non-discrimination protections for the LGBT community,” as the Cities of Sarasota, Venice and North Port have done.
“Ken, we worked on issues like that before, you and I,” Detert replied. “I’m happy to work on that issue. … We’ve been a little busy with COVID and other things,” Detert added, referring to the novel coronavirus pandemic. (The first COVID-19 case in Florida was reported in Sarasota County on March 1.)
“I’m in full support of a human rights ordinance,” Hutchinson told Shelin. If he is elected, Hutchinson added, he would work hard on that issue. “It’s extremely important,” Hutchinson said, to let everyone in the county “know we care about them, regardless of gender identity, race or anything else.”
When Vigne asked if the candidates were in favor of a county mask ordinance to protect people against the spread of COVID-19, Hutchinson replied, “I will support it.”
Detert, on the other hand, claimed the county already has an ordinance requiring the use of masks. That is not true. On July 2, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve a statement crafted by Commissioner Charles Hines to encourage the use of masks when social distancing is not possible. In an earlier discussion, Detert had argued against the board members considering an ordinance, saying she did not want to sit through hours of public discussion, which had taken place in other communities when proposed mask ordinances were addressed.
Hutchinson also advocated for greater support of mental health services in the county. He is president of Holly’s Hope, a nonprofit mental health service organization. That organization’s Facebook page says it is focused on “[r]emoving the social stigma associated with depression, suicide, and mental health issues in general.”
Hutchinson said the County Commission should have proceeded with plans it initially put in motion to hold a November referendum on the creation of a Mental Health Special District, which would operate with dedicated funding to boost services in the community.
Because of concerns about the economic downturn resulting from the pandemic — especially uncertainty over much local government revenue would be lost — the board members agreed to halt the referendum plans for this year.
Hutchinson pointed out during the debate that if the commission had proceeded with those plans, then voters would have been able to choose for themselves if they wanted to support the district.
“We have to do better as a community,” he said, in providing mental health services. “It can’t all be on the backs of the nonprofits.”
Both he and Detert did talk of the need to support food banks, which have stepped up assistance during the public health emergency, as well as small business owners.
Detert noted that the county had received $18.9 million in federal CARES Act funding. “We have dedicated a great chunk of that to food banks,” she said, as well as to individuals who need help paying rent and mortgages, “so they can hang on to the roof over their head.”
“A lot of people … are spending more than 50% of their income on housing,” she added, “and that makes it hard to have money for other things. … Frankly, I’ve been immensely impressed with the cheerful attitude of our young workers,” she said. “They’re just rolling with the punches and doing the best they can … and the county is doing everything that it can to help them …”
Asking for the votes
Finally, Vigne asked both candidates about their political philosophies.
“I’m not a populist,” Detert responded. “[I] don’t cave to every crowd. … The main thing is to be a listener.”
She added, “I’ve lived here so long and know the people who live here.”
Hutchinson said members of the public “should learn to trust [an elected official] through what you say and also what you do.”
Moreover, he continued, “It’s not about my agenda; it’s about your agenda, as citizens of Sarasota County.”
Although people run on issues, Detert pointed out, “Issues change every six months. … What do you bring to the table that’s [of value] to your constituents? It can be as simple as your life experiences … and your knowledge of the community and whatever special skills you have.”
“When it comes to politics,” Detert continued, “you have to use every skill you have. … That’s what I bring is lots of experiences,” including her 25 years as a mortgage broker in Venice, she noted.
A native of the county, Hutchinson said, “I believe it’s time to pass the torch … to the next generation of leaders. … You need somebody who is only going to be beholden to the public. I don’t have any political ties that would hold me back.”
He also noted his experience as chair of the North Port Charter Review Board and his public service through the mental health nonprofit.
In response to Hutchinson’s reference to her age, Detert said that, as a member of the School Board, she authorized the construction of the Laurel Nokomis School, where Hutchinson serves as the college and career adviser.
This will be her last race, she added. “I just want to thank the public … and I hope I haven’t disappointed you.”
Hutchinson pointed out that elected office is not just for those with political experience; it is for people who will serve with integrity and “vote in the best interest of their communities.”