Proposal for talks comes after 15 speakers address the commission during Open to Public session of Nov. 27 meeting
Fifteen people appeared before the Sarasota County Commission on Nov. 27, at times scolding the board members as they urged them to begin the process of rescinding the May 11, 2016 vote that vacated a 373-foot-long section of North Beach Road on Siesta Key.
By the end of the board’s meeting that day, Commissioner Charles Hines was talking of the potential for a settlement of litigation over the road vacation that began more than two years ago in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court.
After the commissioners started their lunch break, Hines said, Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino — who filed his original complaint against the county in June 2016 — approached Hines, Hines told his colleagues on the afternoon of Nov. 27. Cosentino asked for Hines’ recommendation of a county staff member with whom Cosentino could talk, to try to resolve the North Beach Road issues, Hines added.
Hines then approached Assistant County Attorney David Pearce, Hines continued, as Pearce has been representing the county in the litigation. Hines suggested that Pearce and County Administrator Jonathan Lewis sit down with Cosentino and Cosentino’s attorney first. “That’s a protocol that should be followed,” Hines pointed out, referring to the need for the board members to operate under the state’s Sunshine Law.
He hoped his colleagues would concur with that suggestion, Hines said. If appropriate, after that discussion, Hines added, Cosentino’s ideas could be brought back to the board for consideration.
“I think we’d be glad to do that,” Deputy Attorney Alan Roddy said of scheduling such a discussion with Cosentino and his legal counsel. “I don’t think we’d have a problem with that at all.”
Any proposals Cosentino makes would have to come back to the board members for discussion in public or, perhaps, a “shade” meeting, Hines explained, referring to a closed session with county legal staff to discuss a potential settlement. “An olive branch has at least been put out there, just a little bit.”
Hines stressed, “I don’t think we need to go through what occurred this morning for the rest of our commission meetings forever. … Nobody wins if we continue this type of embarrassing circus on all sides.”
Chair Nancy Detert responded that she, too, was unhappy about how the morning session went. “I don’t consider that good government. I don’t consider it democracy in action.”
No board member objected to Hines’ proposal for the initial staff discussion with Cosentino and Cosentino’s attorney.
However, newly elected Commissioner Christian Ziegler did ask for frequent updates about North Beach Road. When he was campaigning, he pointed out, the two “major issues” on which members of the public focused were the planned extension of The Legacy Trail to downtown Sarasota and North Port and the North Beach Road vacation. “I don’t think I could be updated on Legacy Trail and Beach Road enough.”
Anger and accusations
On the morning of Nov. 27, Cosentino and 14 of his supporters spoke during the Open to the Public portion of the regular commission meeting, all referencing the Nov. 6 passage of two Sarasota County Charter amendments that Cosentino and a nonprofit organization he founded in 2016 — Reopen Beach Road — promoted in an effort to reverse the May 2016 road vacation. One amendment was written to prevent any County Commission in the future from giving up any land that offers, as that amendment put it, “viewing of waterfront vistas.
Many of the speakers criticized County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh and his staff for filing motions in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court to have the amendments ruled unconstitutional.
On Aug. 29, as the commission prepared to vote on whether to put the amendments on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot, DeMarsh explained a number of concerns about the language of the amendments, especially their seeming contravention of state law giving local government bodies the authority to undertake specific actions, including sales of county property.
On Nov. 27, both Cosentino and one of his long-time supporters, Linda Valley, reasserted their position that the County Commission violated the county’s Comprehensive Plan when it approved the road vacation in May 2016.
Cosentino said the alleged violation “is a well-established fact” and that the commission has refused to acknowledge that or correct the action.
However, after hearings on the lawsuit Cosentino filed against the county, 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Frederick Mercurio ruled that the commission had not violated the Comprehensive Plan. Mercurio ultimately dismissed all counts of Cosentino’s complaint against the county, though Cosentino recently appealed Mercurio’s final ruling to the Second District Court of Appeal. Cosentino lost an earlier appeal on part of the complaint.
Nonetheless, on Nov. 27, Valley talked of Environmental Policy 1.1.13 in the county’s Comprehensive Plan at the time of the May 2016 vote. That said, “The County shall not vacate road segments on waterfronts along any creek, river, lake, bay or Gulf access point and shall encourage right-of-way use of these areas for coastal beach and bay access.”
“That is an unequivocal statement,” she stressed.
During an overall revision of the Comprehensive Plan later that year, Valley continued, the board approved changing “shall” to “should,” but that had no effect on the May 11, 2016 action. Reopen Beach Road had asked the commission many times to rescind the 2016 road vacation vote, Valley pointed out. “You refused to act in the best interests of your constituents.”
As a result of the board’s refusal to reverse the May 2016 decision, Cosentino said, “we the people … chose to exercise our constitutional right to petition our government” through the citizen-initiated County Charter amendments.
On July 19, 2016, Cosentino pointed out, Reopen Beach Road recorded the proposed amendments and submitted them to the county attorney. “Now, more than two years later, the county attorney suddenly has a problem with the language in our amendments,” Cosentino added.
“There is nothing so sacred in our democratic society as the right to vote and have our vote counted,” Valley told the board members. “And now you want to … disenfranchise every voter.”
“We’re appalled,” Jay Connelly of Siesta Key told the commissioners. “We’d just actually like you to actually represent your constituents and do your job.”
“It may surprise some to know that our county attorney doesn’t represent us, truth, law or justice,” Cosentino said. DeMarsh and his staff “represent their client, the County Commission,” Cosentino continued, “so when the county makes a mistake or even flat-out lies, it’s his job to cover it up, to make it go away.”
Cosentino likened the North Beach Road Charter amendments to the Nov. 6 referendum on extending The Legacy Trail. The Reopen Beach Road amendments, he said, specify the action the commission is to take.
His voice shaking, Cosentino told the board members, “To use our tax dollars to pay the county attorney to suppress our will as expressed through our vote is unconscionable. You literally are pouring poison on the very roots of our democracy. … Please stop fighting the will of the people. Reopen Beach Road and preserve our precious public lands.”
The Charter amendment calling for rescinding the road vacation won support from more than 65% of the voters on Nov. 6; the second amendment, designed to preserve in public ownership any county land with a water view, garnered more than 72% of the votes.
Audience members erupted in cheers and applause, prompting Chair Detert to admonish them. “It’s not really democracy,” she said, “to cheer for who you like and boo for the people you don’t. So we try not to do that here, so don’t get yourself removed.”
Hines, Detert respond to speakers
Prior to Detert’s election to the board in 2016, it was not commonplace for commissioners to respond to speakers’ remarks during Open to the Public, unless it was to direct the person to talk with a staff member who could provide assistance to that person.
However, Detert and Commissioner Hines have at times over the past two years engaged in dialogue with speakers over the North Beach Road issues. That proved the case again this week.
Detert’s first comments came in response to remarks by Karen Potts of Sarasota, who told the commissioners, “I am just almost standing here shaking with disbelief” that the board would challenge decisions voters had made.
Potts suggested that perhaps the commissioners never thought Cosentino’s Charter amendments would win voter approval.
Detert responded that she did not know what Potts might have heard at meetings of Cosentino and his supporters. “The voters voted,” Detert continued. “We understand that. It’s a process; it doesn’t happen the very next day,” Detert added of implementing provisions of new Charter amendments. “We’re trying to go through the legal process in an orderly manner.”
Then Hines asked Potts if Nov. 27 marked the first occasion she had addressed the board. After Potts confirmed that it was, he noted images Potts was holding up, which were taken from the Reopen Beach Road website. They showed a rendering of what Cosentino asserts would be the appearance of North Beach Road if the county had stabilized and repaired the road in 2013 and kept it open to public transportation. The county closed the road to motor vehicles in 1993 after the pavement had suffered repeated damage from storms.
Cosentino has cited the success of a system called a “step revetment” that stabilized a problematic stretch of Casey Key Road prior to 2013. He has noted on many occasions that a Jacksonville consulting firm, Taylor Engineering, suggested in a report — which the commission hired the firm to prepare in 2013 — that a step revetment system was among measures feasible for stabilizing North Beach Road.
The second image Potts showed the board featured signage at the Columbus Avenue intersection with North Beach Road, indicating the latter was closed to motor vehicles.
Hines characterized the images as “some misinformation.” He then asked Potts if she was aware that three sets of property owners on North Beach Road — two sets of whom petitioned for the road vacation — also own parcels seaward of the road. If the County Commission were to rescind the road vacation, Hines indicated, it also would have to annul an element of that deal: The property owners gave up all rights to seek development on those lots between the public beach and North Beach Road. If that deal were reversed, Hines continued, the landowners potentially could build structures seaward of the road, which most likely would obscure the view of the Gulf of Mexico.
“There really should be a third picture,” Hines added, showing such structures.
“I’m honestly not following you,” Potts replied.
Hines suggested that people who do not understand all the facets of the road vacation could schedule one-on-one meetings with members of the board to learn the background and relevant points.
“We are not here to undermine the will of the voters,” Detert told Potts. Referring to her membership on the Sarasota County Canvassing Board and the state’s requirement for vote recounts in the 2018 election, Detert added, “I counted the votes … three times, 9 to 5 every day.”