Proposed advisory board reappointment prompts County Commission vote to ensure advertisement of all such positions in the future

Commission splits 4-1 on reappointment of Kafi Benz to Metropolitan Planning Organization Citizen Advisory Committee

Commissioner Michael Moran. File photo

An advisory board reappointment listed on the Sarasota County Commission’s Oct. 23 Consent Agenda of routine business items ultimately led to a board vote directing staff to ensure the county advertises all open advisory board seats in the future.

Commissioner Michael Moran asked that the item be pulled from the Consent Agenda for discussion. A memo to the board from Leigh Sprimont, the county’s commission services manager, explained that Kafi Benz had asked to serve another three-year term on the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization Citizen Advisory Committee. Benz’s term would end in November 2021, the memo said.

Sprimont had verified that Benz was qualified to serve on the advisory council “in accordance with the governing document” and is a county resident, the memo noted.

“What I’m troubled by,” Moran began, is that the advisory committee handles issues related to traffic and transportation, which are a major concern in the community, “and we have one applicant [for the seat], who was a renewal.”

“My first alarm,” Moran continued, was that more people had not applied for such a position. Then, in talking the previous day with Sprimont, he said, he learned that “apparently, we don’t even advertise for this [advisory] board.”

An applicant whose term will be ending can simply submit a letter seeking another term, Moran added, “and they will get reappointed no matter what.”

The commissioners then asked Sprimont to come to the podium to provide some background.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC), she explained, advises the MPO itself. “We have historically deferred to the MPO staff and the MPO CAC bylaws,” she continued, in working to fill the seats on the committee.

The bylaws “don’t have term limits,” she pointed out, in contrast to the rules of procedure for the County Commission’s advisory boards. Therefore, she said, if a term is expiring and the member wants to be reappointed, all the member has needed to do is submit a letter to that effect to the county or to the MPO.

“In the event of a vacancy,” Sprimont added, “we should advertise the position.”

In a telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader after the Oct. 23 discussion, Benz said, “This is the first time I recall they didn’t put [the seat] up for advertisement.” Benz had wondered about that, she added.

Kafi Benz opens a CONA meeting this fall. News Leader photo

Her letter seeking reappointment noted that she has “served continuously on this advisory committee since 2000 …”

Benz, who lists her occupation on her application as “writer, designer, entrepreneur.” She noted in her application that she has received training on road designs, as well as community planning and development.

Benz also is the president of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA). The members of CONA hold monthly meetings on issues of concern in the community. Among recent topics have been the proposal for the Siesta Promenade project at the northwest corner of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road and the community engagement with the County Commission about the future of county-owned property next to the Celery Fields.

Additionally, CONA hosts candidate forums during election years; it has held a number of those forums over the past months.

Confusion and clarification

After Sprimont spoke with Moran about the CAC reappointments, she told the commissioners on Oct. 23, she reread the MPO bylaws. “[The document is] not all that clear.”

As a result, she said, she called Dave Hutchinson, the MPO’s executive director. “He is of the opinion that it is up to the member organizations” in regard to the handling of their appointments to the advisory committee, she added. “He’s most concerned that this board be comfortable that they’re appointing the best representatives” to serve on the committee.

Further, she said, because of the confusion with the bylaws, Hutchinson told her he would ensure that they are revised to make certain the Sarasota and Manatee county commissions have flexibility in their handling of future advisory committee appointments.

If the Sarasota County Commission wanted her to advertise Benz’s seat for three weeks, Sprimont said, she would be happy to do so in an effort to find more applicants.

Commission Chair Nancy Detert. Rachel Hackney photo

Chair Nancy Detert noted that Benz’s term would just be for three years, so she suggested, “We can revise our rules later.”
Nonetheless, if her colleagues wanted to advertise for more applicants, the appointment could be removed from the Consent Agenda that day, Detert said.

Noting that he serves on the MPO board with Detert and Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, Commissioner Alan Maio responded that he did not believe any of them knew about the situation with the bylaws. “I’m surprised at this.”

In the past, Maio continued, when only one person has applied for a county advisory board seat, the commission often has asked staff to advertise the position again.

“I would at least like to see it fixed,” he said, so this type of situation would not arise again.

Caragiulo pointed out, “Sometimes it’s a real challenge to get people [to serve on the advisory boards].”

The county has 32 of them, Sprimont reminded the commissioners.

While he agreed that having “as robust as possible an advertising program” for those seats, in this case, Caragiulo continued, he felt it would be appropriate to go ahead and reappoint Benz and then have staff make certain to advertise for the MPO committee seats in the future.

He cautioned his colleagues that when they have opted to re-advertise after only one person has applied for an advisory board seat, that has led to a bit of an awkward situation. The solitary applicant, he said, probably has thought, “‘My name’s not good enough.’”

Caragiulo added, “I’ve known Ms. Benz for 25 years, and we don’t agree on very many things. But she’s an engaged representative in the community. I always see her at the MPO meetings. I am reluctant to have that sort of negative reaction to this appointment.”

Moran disagreed with reappointing Benz that day, noting that Sarasota County has nine seats on the MPO advisory committee. “We [should] pick the best candidates to represent the citizens on that board. … We never even did an advertisement … to even have a vetting process.”

“I’m inclined to go forward with this appointment,” Caragiulo reiterated his earlier point. Staff can make certain it advertises for the seats in the future, he added.

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo. File photo

Caragiulo finally made the motion to reappoint Benz and also to direct staff to follow normal county procedure with regard to the MPO advisory committee seats going forward: The seats should be advertised.

Commissioner Charles Hines seconded the motion. It passed 4-1, with Moran voting “No.”

“Commissioner Moran, thanks for bringing this up,” Hines said after the vote.

Because Sprimont also had noted that one member on the MPO committee had served 25 years, and Benz first was appointed in 2000, Hines continued, it would be good to have different people involved on that committee, “so the board doesn’t become stale.”