McFarland formally files Siesta incorporation bill

If town is established, first election of commissioners would be in March 2025

Editor’s note: This article was corrected late in the afternoon of Feb. 24 to show that the 2023 Florida Legislature will convene on March 7. 

State Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota, formally has filed House Bill 923 in the Florida House, which calls for the creation of the Town of Siesta Key, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

McFarland took the action late in the morning of Feb. 17, House records show.

During a Jan. 12 meeting in downtown Sarasota, the members of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation voted 3-1 to allow the bill to be filed. Only Chair James Buchanan, R-Osprey, opposed the measure.

McFarland already had agreed to file the bill, if the Delegation members allowed it to go forward in the 2023 legislative session, which will begin on March 7, with adjournment set for May 5.

McFarland’s bill regarding Siesta Key says, “It is intended that this charter and the incorporation of the unincorporated Siesta Key area will serve to preserve and protect the character, natural resources, and quality of life of the community.”

The northernmost part of the barrier island is within the jurisdiction of the City of Sarasota. Leaders of the nonprofit Save Siesta Key, which has spent most of the past two years advocating for the creation of the Town of Siesta Key, made it clear early on that they would focus only on the portion of the island within Sarasota County’s jurisdiction.

If the bill passes the Florida House and Senate, and Gov. DeSantis signs it, a referendum would be conducted on Nov. 5, 2024, with citizens in the unincorporated area of the Key getting to vote on whether the town should be established, the bill explains.

Although Save Siesta Key leaders long had proposed holding the referendum this fall, if the bill wins final approval, state Rep. Mike Grant, R-Port Charlotte — a new member of the county Legislative Delegation — urged them to wait until the 2024 General Election, as general elections typically draw more voters than special elections, as demonstrated by statistics generated by supervisor of elections offices.

Then, the bill continues, if voters approve the establishment of the Town of Siesta Key, “[T]he Board of County Commissioners of Sarasota County shall call an election to be held March 11, 2025, for the election of five commission members.” The expense of that election “shall initially be funded by the [County Commission],” the bill points out, but the Town of Siesta Key would have to reimburse the county for the cost.

The first Siesta Key Town Commission meeting would be conducted on March 26, 2025, the bill notes, provided that the results of the election have been certified by then. If not, the bill continues, the first meeting would be conducted on the following Tuesday.

Further, the bill makes it clear that, at the outset, the five town commissioners would be elected at large; the three receiving the highest number of votes would hold four-year terms, while the other two would serve for two years. “Thereafter,” the bill continues, “the elections shall be for full 4-year terms, conducted in conjunction with the state’s general election.”

Additionally, each town commissioner would be limited to two terms, except those who initially won two-year terms. They could hold an extra term following those first terms, the bill says.

And, like the Sarasota City Commission, the Siesta Key town commissioners each year would select from among themselves a mayor, who then would preside over the selection of a vice mayor.

Moreover, the bill points out that an ordinance would be necessary for the town commissioners to set any compensation for themselves. While leaders of Save Siesta Key have said that the commissioners would receive no pay, the bill explains, “The initial commission shall not be compensated and will take the matter up in due course at a regularly scheduled meeting. If the commission at any point takes action to install or adjust compensation of its members, the salary shall not be adjusted until after the first day after the next regular municipal election.”

The bill also points out, “The commission shall be entitled to receive their actual and necessary expenses incurred in the performance of their official duties in accordance with general law.”

In regard to a town manager, the bill says, “The commission shall appoint a town manager (‘manager’) by a majority vote of the commission. The manager shall be chosen based on education and experience in the accepted competencies and practices of local government management. The manager shall be the administrative head of the municipal government under the direction and supervision of the commission. The manager shall  hold office at the pleasure of the commission. The manager may be an employee or an independent contractor and may be a firm if an individual is designated as manager.”

Comprehensive plan details and contractual services

The bill does note that the Sarasota County Comprehensive Plan, which guides growth in the county, would be in effect for the Town of Siesta Key as its “transitional comprehensive plan. However,” the bill says, “all planning functions, duties, and authority shall thereafter be vested in the [town] commission, which shall be deemed the local planning agency until the commission establishes a separate local planning agency or arrangement.”

The bill then points out, “Subsequent to the adoption of a local comprehensive land use plan and subject to general law, the commission is fully empowered to amend, supersede, enforce, or repeal the transitional land use development regulations, or any portion thereof, by ordinance.”

Further, it says, “Any existing Sarasota County ordinances, rules, and regulations, as of April 1, 2025, shall not be altered, changed, rescinded, or added to, nor shall any variance be granted, if such action would affect the town without the approval of the commission.”

Additionally, the bill notes, “Contractual services for law enforcement, emergency management, public works, parks and recreation, planning and zoning, building inspection, development review, animal control, library services, town manager, town attorney, and solid waste collection may be supplied by a contract between the town and  the Board of County Commissioners of Sarasota County, special districts, municipalities, or private enterprise until such time as the commission establishes such independent services.”

Nonetheless, the bill points out, the town will have to honor existing solid waste contracts, as provided for in state law.

Among other facets of the bill, it calls for a review of the town Charter “[a]t least one time in each 10 years …” The bill adds, “The review may be performed by the commission or by an advisory board, other commission, or a committee appointed by the commission. Following such review, the commission may take such action as may be in the best interest of the town in accordance with the provisions of this charter.”