State Sen. Gruters and Rep. McFarland acknowledge ‘long road ahead’
This week, the newest member of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation made it clear to supporters of the incorporation of Siesta Key that he will need to see significant, positive turnout in the ongoing straw ballot process before he can vote in favor of a local legislative bill that would allow the creation of the Town of Siesta Key.
On the night of Dec. 6, Rep. Mike Grant, R-Port Charlotte, told residents filling the sanctuary of Siesta Key Chapel, “If you get 20% turnout on the straw ballot, and it’s 90% in favor [of incorporation], I’m probably not going to be looking at that as being a mandate for adding another layer of government.”
Grant continued, “If you’ve got a 70% turnout, and it’s 60% [in favor], yeah, that tells me a little bit more about what’s going on. So from my perspective, and I will be blunt, without sufficient turnout, I’m probably not going to be there for you.”
Grant’s comments came shortly after state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, told the audience, “Right here, you have the three votes that matter.”
State Rep. James Buchanan, R-Osprey, who is chair of the county Legislative Delegation, “is a ‘No,’ ” Gruters added. “He didn’t show up tonight.”
The third person Gruters was referencing, Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota, announced to the audience that she would be “happy to continue to be [the sponsor of the necessary local bill for incorporation].” However, she also pointed out that that is predicated on support for incorporation remaining strong.
She did note, “We’re packing a room on a Tuesday night,” which showed, she said, that residents of the island “still very much care about where [they] live” and want control of their future.
Yet, she also talked about the importance of the results of the straw ballot. Those, she continued, “will be incredibly helpful.”
Early on during the meeting, Tim Hensey, chair of Save Siesta Key, the nonprofit established last year to work for incorporation, asked how many of those in Siesta Key Chapel had received their straw ballots, which were to go out in the mail this week. Many people raised their hands.
All registered voters on the island were to have received the ballots. In response to a Sarasota News Leader question, Tyson Pruitt, communications manager for the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office, wrote in a Dec. 7 email that the Key had a total of 7,099 qualified voters, as noted in a November report for that office.
The ballots need to be returned no later than Dec. 30 to the Lakewood Ranch law firm that will be tabulating those results, Hensey added. That firm is Persson, Cohen, Mooney, Fernandez and Jackson. Postage-paid return envelopes have been included in the mailings, Save Siesta Key leaders have pointed out.
Ideally, Hensey suggested during the meeting, the ballots should be mailed no later than Dec. 20.
The straw ballot tally, undertaken by a third party, “will be incredibly valuable as a data set,” McFarland said.
During the Dec. 6 meeting at Siesta Key Chapel, McFarland did acknowledge that it would not be easy to gain sufficient support of her Florida House colleagues for the local bill, even with a strong showing by way of the straw ballot results.
“I have to look at 119 of my fellow legislators,” she said, and convince them to allow a new municipality to be created.
Gruters concurred with her. “This is a long road. … We really should have a 4-0 vote [of the Delegation in favor of the bill],” he added; that would provide momentum for the bill’s passage in both chambers of the Florida Legislature. (If the bill ultimately wins approval in the state House and Senate, Gov. Ron DeSantis must sign it, too, for it to go into effect and allow a referendum on incorporation, Hensey of Save Siesta Key has explained.)
“With supermajority Republican control — House and Senate,” Gruters continued, “there is little appetite to expand government.”
He urged supporters of a Town of Siesta Key to keep calling Rep. Buchanan.
Gruters also pointed out that, early this year, when the Delegation comprised six members — before the redistricting made necessary by results of the 2020 Census — Rep. Will Robinson Jr., R-Bradenton, Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota, and Buchanan were opposed to raising taxes, even though Siesta residents were in favor of that. Therefore, those three Delegation members all voted “No,” which resulted in a 3-3 tie. Thus, no local bill was filed in the 2022 session of the Legislature.
Even if the Town of Siesta Key became a reality, Hensey explained, the residents still would have to pay the Sarasota County millage rate each year.
During his remarks, Gruters also noted that Save Siesta Key and island residents backed him and McFarland in their re-election bids this year. “Siesta Key was there for us.”
He urged the audience members to use the same energy they demonstrated during the election in urging Buchanan and Rep. Grant to support the incorporation initiative.
“Everything in politics is a team,” Gruters added. “I hope this year we can find a little bit more success.”
McFarland also talked about the fact that she had spoken with her fellow House members last year about Siesta Key residents’ desire to have their own municipality. “A year of having an idea in your head is very, very helpful,” she noted.
Moreover, she continued, Save Siesta Key doubled the proposed town millage rate from 0.25 mills to 0.5 mills, and its consultant created a new feasibility study for incorporation, in response to concerns that legislators voiced during the Delegation meeting in January.
Save Siesta Key also has changed its lawyers and its lobbyists, she said.
Given all of those facts, McFarland told the audience, “I feel more optimistic this session.”
Hoping to ‘preserve the charm of our island’
As Save Siesta Key leaders have explained, the portion of the Key they are focused on is within the jurisdiction of Sarasota County. They are not working on any plan to include the northern part of the island, which is within the City of Sarasota’s jurisdiction.
To underscore the support for incorporation, Gruters asked how many audience members that night were in favor of it — just as Hensey had done shortly after the start of the meeting. As they did in response to Hensey’s question, almost every person put a hand in the air.
Mirroring McFarland’s earlier remark, Gruters said, “The fact that you are here tonight means a lot.”
As Hensey explained early on during the meting, the primary reasons for the launch of the incorporation initiative in 2021 were the County Commission’s approval of two high-rise hotels on Siesta Key — one on the edge of Siesta Village; the other, on Old Stickney Point Road — plus the growing number of “hotel houses.” The latter are residential structures that have replaced many homes near the beach in recent years. They are constructed to sleep 20 or more guests and typically rented through online platforms such as Airbnb, TripAdvisor and HomeAway.com.
Residents have complained for years at Siesta Key Association meetings that many of the visitors who occupy those houses have late-night, noisy parties; that their vehicles abound in the yards of the houses and along the streets; and that garbage left out days in advance of the Waste Management collections draws vermin while proving unsightly.
“We just want to preserve the charm of our island,” Hensey said.