Neighborhood Workshops can continue with virtual formats, County Commission majority decides

Commissioner Smith had sought return to in-person meetings

After close to 35 minutes of discussion this week, the majority of the Sarasota County commissioners voted to keep in place the current regulations for Neighborhood Workshops: The events, which are not public hearings, can be held either in-person or via digital means, including Zoom.

Additionally, Sarasota County staff members will continue to attend the sessions, regardless of how they are conducted. A county staff memo included in the agenda packet for the June 13 meeting, which addressed the proposed return to in-person meetings, noted that the amended language no longer required mandatory County staff attendance at those workshops, which, the memo pointed out, are not held at county staff locations, are conducted after normal work hours and are “the full responsibility of the applicant.”

On March 7, Commissioner Mark Smith won the support of two of his colleagues — Commissioners Michael Moran and Joe Neunder — in a request for staff to revise the county regulation regarding how Neighborhood Workshops should be held. Having listened to a multitude of complaints from constituents who had had difficulties hearing presentations and comments during virtual workshops, Smith called for the return to the in-person sessions. Chair Ron Cutsinger cast the “No” vote that day.

During their regular meeting on June 13, after Michele Norton, assistant director of the Planning and Development Services Department, presented an amended resolution to require in-person sessions, Smith said, “From what I’ve heard from the folks, all the neighborhoods are extremely pleased” about the board members’ decision in March to require in-person meetings once again.

Before she began her presentation, Norton noted that staff had received correspondence about the issue since the agenda packet was published last week. She turned over to the clerk to the board copies of that correspondence, for the record.

In response to a request, the Board of Records, which is part of the Office of the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller, provided The Sarasota News Leader copies of the emails. Ten of them repeated the same points in asking the commissioners to approve the policy change to require in-person workshops once again.

The first in that group came from Becky Ayech, president of the Miakka Community Club in the eastern part of the county. The email described problems that individuals had encountered with virtual sessions, including the inability to join a meeting and having to use a chat room to ask questions “without the ability to see the questions posed by others bringing into question if all the questions were read.”

Ayech emphasized the importance of the “meaningful communication” that occurs during in-person workshops.

Nonetheless, on June 13, Smith told his colleagues, “I do believe that having also a virtual option is important.” Perhaps the commission should require applicants to have both in-person workshops with virtual participation, as well, he suggested.

Commissioner Neunder was the first board member to broach the idea of keeping the version of the resolution that the board members adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic, which allowed the virtual meetings as a means of public safety. “Did some homework, made some calls, interrogated a few people,” he began, chuckling as he made the last part of that comment.

First, he did ask for clarification from Norton of Planning and Development that the state does not require workshops for applicants to inform neighbors and nearby property owners of proposed land-use and Comprehensive Plan changes and that not all counties require the sessions. She responded that he was correct on those points.

“We go above and beyond to encourage transparency and interaction with the public,” Neunder continued.

Yet, he told his colleagues, “This is the 21st century. We’re all using computers,” and electronic means of communicating with people.

“As I took a deeper dive into the situation,” Neunder added, he began thinking about the fact that people who only spend part of the year in the county still can participate in the Neighborhood Workshops if those events are conducted virtually. “I think it’s great and in the public interest,” he said, for the county to offer both in-person and virtual options to applicants.

Moreover, Neunder pointed out, he has heard that “venue opportunities have been less available since COVID.” He added that he also had learned about people on occasion during the workshops “engaging with each other — I’ll just say in an unprofessional manner.”

A little later, he noted, “It’s been presented to me [that Neighborhood Workshops] can get a little heated, if you will,” but no law enforcement personnel are present, and no other type of security is provided.

Further, having reviewed the proposed new resolution, Neunder continued, he felt that a county staff person should be present for every Neighborhood Workshop. “I think it adds tremendous value to have staff there.”

Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho, who was sitting in for County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, explained the reasoning behind the proposed change in the revised resolution that would have eliminated the need for a county staff member to attend each in-person workshop. The staff member likely would not know any more about a proposed project than the other attendees, Botelho told the commissioners. Further, county administration, he indicated, did not want the staff member “to look like the enforcer …”

New Commissioner Neil Rainford, who was appointed to fill out the term of the late Commissioner Nancy Detert, offered positive comments regarding the use of virtual meeting technology, with which he became acquainted while he was on the Planning Commission at the height of the pandemic. Those sessions were “tremendously successful,” Rainford added, largely because of staff efforts to ensure all went smoothly.

Further, Rainford pointed out, “I’d say 90% of business meetings are held [virtually these days].”

One concern about in-person meetings, he continued, is “that a large majority of people are uncomfortable in a public speaking setting.” Individuals are more willing to offer comments or ask questions during virtual sessions, he indicated.

Rainford concurred with Neunder, as well, on the fact that even “snowbirds” can participate in virtual workshops, if they have returned to their other homes. “I don’t really think that’s fair to them” not to be able to attend the sessions, Rainford said, since technology makes it possible for them to do so.

In regard to yet another point Neunder had raised, Rainford noted, “I’ve heard a strong reluctance” from leaders of churches about allowing those buildings to be used for Neighborhood Workshops. Having served on a board at a church, he added, he had participated in such discussions.

Even before the pandemic began, Norton of Planning and Development said, applicants had begun telling county planners that they were struggling to find facilities for in-person workshops.

More concerns about reverting to in-person sessions

Commissioner Michael Moran initially focused his comments on what he indicated was the public’s belief that the workshops are public hearings. The Planning Commission and the County Commission conduct hearings on the applications, he stressed. “Those are a very formal process.” As a result, he added, they are venues where people “are allowed to properly speak.”

Then Moran noted that many of the workshops are held in the evenings, and a number of individuals do not like to drive in the evenings. Moreover, he said, those workshops “can last for hours.”

Commissioner Smith told his colleagues that, as an architect, he has had to set up Neighborhood Workshops. Referring to both attendance and behavior of the individuals present, “It is a mixed bag,” he acknowledged.

Nonetheless, Smith said, “I believe they are essential for the neighborhoods that are impacted by any development to be able to be educated by the applicant … [A workshop] is necessary so that the neighborhoods understand what’s happening, so they can prepare either support or opposition to what’s going to happen.”

Commissioner Moran pointed out that applicants try to work out issues that the neighbors raise, before the applicants get to the county’s public hearing stage. “They don’t want the public in this room, complaining,” Moran added, referring to the Commission Chambers.

“Communication’s healthy,” Smith pointed out. “Some folks are better at it than others.”

Conducting the workshops in-person “makes a world of difference,” with applicants having “to look the neighbors in the eye to say, ‘This is what we’re doing’ and answer the questions,” Smith added.

In response to Smith’s remarks, Rainford pointed out, “I am totally in support of Neighborhood Workshops.” More often than not, he continued, the applicant wants to work with the individuals who will be affected by a project, so the applicant can be a good neighbor.

Moran, too, stressed his support for the workshops. Yet, he said, “These in-person meetings are very cumbersome.”

When Neunder asked whether the applicants are required to make recordings of their workshops, regardless of whether the sessions are held in-person or via electronic means, Norton of Planning and Development told him that the county policy requires the recording of the sessions. Each applicant who hosts a meeting has to provide a copy of that recording to the Planning and Development Services staff, she noted.

Having served on the Planning Commission, too, before his first election to the County Commission, Moran pointed out that he had “heard a few of these audios” from in-person workshops. “The assumption that there’s high-quality [audio-visual] equipment in [venues, including churches], is [incorrect],” he emphasized.

“In a big room, you might not catch the audio,” Rainford added.

Noting that he, too, had served previously on the Planning Commission, Chair Ron Cutsinger also voiced his support for the Neighborhood Workshops.

He pointed out that any applicant “who hopes to be successful” will follow up on questions the public asks and will even suggest more meetings, to try to mitigate problems that individuals have pointed to with a proposal.

Cutsinger also talked of the fact that the county earlier this year began posting on its website all of the state-required public notices of hearings on land-use and related issues. “We’re a digital society. Almost everything I do now is online.”

In fact, Cutsinger said, “There’s a lot of board meetings I wouldn’t be able to attend” if they were not conducted virtually.

Each of the commissioners represents his colleagues on a variety of boards in the county.

Finally, County Attorney Joshua Moye explained that if the majority of the commissioners preferred to keep the current Neighborhood Workshop resolution in place — allowing applicants the choice of in-person or virtual sessions — one of them could make a motion to withdraw the proposed, amended resolution from the agenda.

Another option, Moye said, would be to take no action on the agenda item.

After Moran sought clarification, Matt Osterhoudt, director of Planning and Development Services, explained that most of the commissioners appeared to have agreed on keeping the current regulations. Thus, no action was needed, if they wanted to maintain the status quo, Osterhoudt indicated.

Moran told Osterhoudt that he hopes staff feels comfortable conveying to the public that the commissioners make policy, and staff follows it.

Commissioner Smith did offer a motion to adopt the revised resolution, calling once again for in-person workshops, but it died for lack of a second.

Then Neunder made a motion to take no action on the agenda item before them, and Moran seconded it. The motion passed 4-1, with Smith in the minority.

“We go back to the way things have been,” Cutsinger summed up the decision.