Committee’s final report approved for presentation to City Commission on March 7
With a unanimous vote on Feb. 14, the Sarasota Charter Review Committee members approved their final report, which is to be presented to the City Commission on March 7.
Before they took that action, however, they reversed one decision they had made several months ago: On a 6-4 vote, they agreed to keep in the Sarasota City Charter the necessity of a supermajority vote of the City Commission to make any change in the city’s Comprehensive Plan. That document guides long-term growth in the municipality.
Committee member Dan Clermont brought up the issue, noting that he was among those who had voted to recommend that the Charter be changed to call for only three votes on Comprehensive Plan amendments. In reflecting on that action, he indicated, he had decided that it was a mistake.
“I think, as the constitution of our land use,” he continued, “it should be a major groundswell to make a change to the Comp Plan. I don’t know that we want to open it up for discussion, but I want it on the record that I [am] strongly against that element of our changes.”
Committee member Kim Githler pointed out that former Mayor Mollie Cardamone had asked that the group discuss that particular issue once more.
Committee member Peter Fanning told Clermont that he was happy that Clermont had brought it up. Fanning noted that he had received 16 emails on the topic, “the greatest outpouring of citizen input we’ve had in a matter of a week …”
He had taken the time, Fanning continued, to listen to the recordings of the committee debate on the supermajority vote, which had lasted almost two-and-a-half hours. “I tried to follow the discussion,” Fanning added, “which got very convoluted between Sept. 27 and Oct. 11  regarding Article IV, Section 2, Paragraphs I, J and K [of the Charter].”
Fanning said he found the committee’s change to be “very inconsistent … with the rest of the Charter.”
The actual focus of that discussion months ago, he pointed out, appeared to be the city’s Zoning Code, not the Comprehensive Plan.
“I certainly support what Dan and Peter have talked about,” Vice Chair Eileen Normile told her colleagues. “I never supported changing the supermajority vote for the Comp Plan because it is basically the charter, the constitution of land use in the city … and it ought to be given extraordinary consideration.”
Committee member Cathy Antunes pointed out that the supermajority vote on Comprehensive Plan amendments “hasn’t hampered the city in any way when it comes to growth. So I think it’d be wise to leave it as it is.”
However, committee member Philip DiMaria told her he “could not disagree more” with her last statement. “I’m a little taken aback.”
DiMaria pointed out that a 3-2 vote of the City Commission “is allowed for anything that would decrease [residential] density or decrease height. The supermajority is only required for increases in density, increases in height. And over the course of the last … probably 50 years, we’ve realized that density is a good thing, especially in specific areas of the city.”
DiMaria then sought clarification about Fanning’s remark regarding the 16 emails. “Did that include or exclude the several folks from the Rivo [at Ringling condominium complex]?”
“That included the Rivo,” Fanning responded.
“My first sort of response to seeing a concentrated group of folks who live in a condominium downtown, the tallest building east of Orange Avenue, showing some disdain and a level of, I guess, just negativity towards height and density, I found a little ironic,” DiMaria said.
“I respect folks wishing to retain their property values,” he added, “but we’ve learned a lot over the course of the past 20 years, since the Downtown Plan was adopted, we’ve learned that density is a good thing. It provides opportunities for economic development.”
Moreover, DiMaria pointed out, “We’ve recognized that we are in the midst of a seriouscrisis when it comes to affordable housing.”
In fact, he continued, the consulting firm for which he works — Kimley-Horn of Sarasota — has had six interns “rescind their agreements because they can’t find housing over the summer. And that is the sort of thing that just drives me bonkers when it comes to the actions that the city can make and the ability it does have to truly increase the amount of dwelling units in a sensible manner …”
Changing the requirement from a supermajority vote on Comprehensive Plan changes to a majority vote, he indicated, is one way to facilitate an increase in the number of allowed dwelling units.
DiMaria further noted that “folks find a way to get around [the need for supermajority votes]. … I would rather see a city that recognizes that we have a lot of very gifted attorneys and land-use planners and believes in a commission that can vote in a way that can drive the city forward in a progressive manner and isn’t afraid of a supermajority or sees density and height as something inherently negative.”
Fanning responded that he appreciated DiMaria’s comments. Yet, one of the “tipping points” for his desire to keep the supermajority vote in the Charter, Fanning said, is the fact that the Comprehensive Plan will undergo a review this year. A committee will undertake that work, he added, just as the Charter Review Committee has tackled the city Charter.
The second factor, Fanning continued, is that he has heard “off and on” that the supermajority vote on Comprehensive Plan changes “is an impediment to growth and development. And then I look around the city, and we’ve got more growth and development than most of us can stand. I’m trying to build a house,” he told his colleagues, “and can’t find any subcontractors to come to work for me.”
As for affordable housing: Fanning said he thinks that has to be an idea grasped internally “by each person who gets to make that decision.”
Antunes pointed out, “I think we have to acknowledge the reality that there is pressure to just change the rules … and it’s not always a high-quality fix. … So the supermajority is a really good discipline …”
When Chair Carolyn Mason asked how best to address the reversal of the earlier decision, City Attorney Robert Fournier replied that, based on prior discussions, he understood that the committee members had agreed that “the last vote [on a Charter section] would control …” Therefore, he said, “A simple motion to retain the supermajority would be all that would be needed.”
Normile then made the motion, and Clermont seconded it.
After Chair Mason called for the vote, she joined DiMaria, Wayne Ruben and Jeff Jackson in opposing the shift to keep the supermajority vote in the Charter.
About the November ballot
Before the meeting ended, Vice Chair Normile did ask Fournier who would decide which of the changes the committee members are recommending would be grouped together on the November General Election ballot.
Fournier replied that he would have to go through all of the recommendations and then suggest to the city commissioners “which ones should be singled out, the ones of greater import and the ones that you might call ‘housekeeping,’ for lack of a better way to say it … that you could aggregate in one [ballot] question.”
First, though, he continued, he will need to learn which ones the city commissioners want to put on the ballot. Then, Fournier said, he would have to craft the appropriate ordinances.
Additionally, before they adjourned, City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs thanked the committee members for their time and work. She said that she had learned much from the discussions, as this was the first Charter review process in which she had participated.
Fanning then said that he wanted “the record to reflect the appreciation that this committee should show to the chair and the vice chair in carrying out this agenda, which looked very daunting four months ago …”
Griggs often reminded the members that “we better hurry up,” Fanning pointed out, or they would not be able complete the task they had been given.
Griggs admitted with a laugh that she had been concerned about that at times.