Demonstration conducted outside County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota before March 29 board meeting
On the morning of March 29, keeping his eye on protestors at the back of the County Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota, Chair Alan Maio announced, “I’m going to take a point of privilege here today, and we’re going to change things up a little bit.”
That decision led to approximately an hour of County Commission discussion, which resulted in one failed motion and, finally, a unanimous decision that they should discuss at length, at their next meeting, whether they wish to end the county’s economic incentive grant program.
That next regular meeting is set for April 12 in Sarasota.
Following the vote, Maio called up people for the Open to the Public period of the morning session, letting those go first who wanted to address items on the agenda that did not involve public hearings. When those persons finished their comments, Maio then called up speakers who wanted to address the commission’s tentative agreement last fall to provide up to $825,000 to an online news content platform for the creation of new high-paying jobs in Sarasota.
Representatives of the Economic Development Corp. (EDC) of Sarasota County told the commissioners in late October 2021 that a tech company wanted to relocate its U.S. headquarters to Longboat Key. Because of a state confidentiality law that protects companies in such situations, the EDC staff referred to the proposal as “Project Sunshine.”
The protestors at the back of the Commission Chambers on March 29 — many of whom earlier had held up signs along Ringling Boulevard, outside the County Administration Center — were angry because, as it turned out, the company was Rumble.
As noted on its website, “Rumble’s primary business is a high growth, video sharing platform designed to help content creators manage, distribute, and monetize their content by connecting them with brands and publishers, as well as directly to their subscribers and followers. These services are accessible through the web, mobile devices, and connected TV platforms.”
As it also turns out, Rumble is carrying Russia’s state-controlled RT network as Russia continues to pursue a weeks-long invasion of Ukraine.
Reuters pointed out in a March 3 article that the RT announcement about its Rumble broadcasts came in the wake of tech companies’ decisions “to restrict Russian state-controlled media,” including RT and Sputnik, “in response to requests from governments and calls to prevent the spread of Russia propaganda.”
On March 1, Facebook owner Meta had said that “it was globally demoting content from Russian state-controlled media outlets’ Facebook pages and Instagram accounts,” Reuters added.
Then reporter Sheila Dang pointed out, “Rumble is a video site popular among U.S. political conservatives. In December former U.S. President Donald Trump’s media venture, Trump Media and Technology Group, said Rumble will deliver video and streaming for Truth Social, the venture’s social media app that launched in the Apple (AAPL.O) App Store on Jan. 21.”
The history of the Rumble agreement
On March 29, before Chair Maio gave his colleagues the opportunity to offer comments about the Oct. 26, 2021 Rumble vote, he called for “a moment of silence for the 10 million people that have been relocated and the thousands, including babies, that have been murdered in Ukraine.” His voice quavered at the end of the statement.
Following that moment of silence, Maio explained that he wanted to try to correct misinformation that has been circulating among the public.
The county does not have an agreement with Rumble, he said. When Erin Silk, vice president of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, appeared before the commissioners in October 2021 to recommend the agreement with “Project Sunshine,” Maio continued, none of the board members knew the identity of the firm. “As crazy — ridiculous, you might say — as that sounds, it’s state law.”
He further stressed that the discussion about Project Sunshine took place well before Russia invaded Ukraine.
A staff memo prepared for the commissioners in advance of the meeting explained, “Project Sunshine (the ‘Company’) is a technology and media solutions company in the Information Technology Targeted Industry Sector and has been in business since 2017. The Company provides video creators a way to host, manage, distribute, and create feeds and monetize their online content. The Company is currently headquartered in Canada and interested in expanding operations to the United States with Sarasota County. Project Sunshine has identified an 8,400 square foot facility to lease for five years with the intent to invest in renovations to adequately accommodate 50-70 employees.”
The memo added, “The Company has applied for a Sarasota County Economic Development Incentive [EDI] Grant … to offset costs associated relocating employees for the Sarasota expansion. The authority to approve and award an EDI Grant rests solely with the Board of County Commissioners.”
“Project Sunshine is seeking an EDI Grant of $825,000.00, payable over 9 years for 165 new jobs to be created over five years. Payment is contingent on performance and only after appropriate documentation of such. The average starting annual wage of the new jobs would be $91,250.00, which is 200% of the [Metropolitan Statistical Area] average annual wage as required for State of Florida incentives on the date of the project application,” the memo said.
Yet, during the October 2021 discussion, Commissioner Michael Moran made it clear that he would not support payments for new jobs unless the persons who won them were local residents.
“What troubles me,” he said then, “[is that the contract] has a massive, gaping, humongous loophole that they don’t have to [live in Sarasota County] …”
“We have the opportunity to adjust the contract,” Silk of the EDC replied.
(On March 30, a Sarasota News Leader online check of job opportunities with Rumble found 10 listed on the Indeed website. All of them were classified as “Remote” positions, meaning the persons hired could work from wherever they chose.)
On March 29, as he continued to address the audience in the Commission Chambers, Maio pointed out, “There is no giving anyone $825,000 in a lump.”
In response to situations that arose in past years, he noted, commissioners had called for a change in county regulations to ensure that no economic incentive grant funds would be paid out unless a company could document adequately that it had fulfilled its obligations to receive the funds.
Among the six speakers who ended up addressing the board on the topic on March 29, Adrien Lucas of Sarasota said she had the signatures of 1,656 people on a Change.org petition calling for the commissioners to end any association with Rumble. “Free speech on a streaming platform is not free,” Lucas said, “if the taxpayers of Sarasota have to foot the bill.”
Addressing Commissioner Ziegler, she also pointed out, “You enthusiastically, at a prior board meeting, spewed on” about how Project Sunshine could be invited to work with the Sarasota County School District on courses for students.
(During the Oct. 26, 2021 discussion, Ziegler talked of the ability of the company to work with the Ringling College of Art + Design, which has a national reputation. He also noted, “There’s a real opportunity to get in front of kids in high school. … I know someone on that side that can probably help with that a little bit.” He was referring to his wife, Bridget, who is a member of the Sarasota County School Board.)
Lucas also alluded to Ziegler’s support of former President Donald Trump and reports that Ziegler helped charter buses of county residents for a trip to Washington, D.C., so they could attend Trump’s rally before the insurrection began at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“Here, you get to show no shame,” Lucas told Ziegler, adding that Rumble is a platform with “all of the luminaries that you so want to be with.”
Chair Maio stopped her, and then Commissioner Nancy Detert said the board members should not have to sit through personal attacks.”
“He attacked me,” Lucas responded, having returned to her seat in the audience.
During his earlier remarks, Ziegler also had said, “The same people that are screaming about Rumble are the same people that, you know, think that you should burn flags … which is actually protected in America and shouldn’t be.”
A second speaker, Cathy Antunes, also took up the theme of the events on Jan. 6, 2021, saying, “I do take great issue with the notion that somebody who was fomenting a ‘Stop the Steal’ message campaign in the fall can be complaining about fake news. That is a big mistake.”
“I may not be in my 30s anymore, but I am using social media all the time,” she added, referencing another comment that Ziegler had made.
Then Antunes said, “Rumble can be seen as something that could benefit someone’s personal business network here on the commission, and I think you need to look at that. I think recusal for Commissioner Ziegler would be appropriate.”
During County Commission discussions on a variety of topics, Ziegler often talks about his work on social media.
Antunes added, “There’s a dangerous partisan agenda [that is] being recognized nationally regarding Rumble. … You don’t get to say whatever you want, whenever you want. That’s not freedom of speech. That is [a] self-indulgent and dangerous attitude toward freedom of speech.”
During the final Open to the Public period of the day, which began about 6 p.m., Lisa Schurr of Sarasota talked of having lived and worked for 20 years in first the Soviet Union and then Russia. “I’ve seen how things work there.”
A couple of weeks ago, she told the commissioners, she called an old friend in Russia who was “like my family.” As they were catching up, Schurr continued, she mentioned how terrible the Russian bombing of a maternity ward in Ukraine had been. Her friend told her that that was Ukrainian propaganda, she pointed out.
As for Ziegler’s remarks about the RT network on Facebook and Twitter, Schurr added, “I would say that was a bit of a disingenuous argument, because my tax dollars are not funding Facebook and Twitter.”
Andriy Mulyarchuk, a native of Ukraine who has lived in the county for 15 years, talked of the struggle of countering Russian propaganda. “Everyone listens to them.”
He concluded his remarks to the board members by saying, “God give wisdom to the United States to make right decisions.”
Board support for Ukraine emphasized
Before Maio called anyone up to the podium to speak during the March 29 Open to the Public portion of the morning session, Commissioner Detert asked whether Maio wanted the board members to go ahead and “deal with [the Rumble] issue” first.
“If you would like to make a motion for or against the contract,” Maio replied, “I would ask you to do that now.”
Noting that, as a member of the Florida Legislature, she helped write the state law allowing companies to shield their names from the public until they took government money, Detert added that the commissioners in October asked their staff to work on details of the contract with Rumble.
She continued, “It’s the wrong project, mainly due to remote workers and other issues. We can’t prove who you hired and where they live and how much they make. … So we’ve got the wrong project at the wrong time with the war that’s going on.”
Detert also referenced the Ukrainian flag at the back of the Commission Chambers, saying that it “brings a tear to everyone’s eye. This country is 100% united behind Ukraine.”
Then she pointed out, “This project is also in the wrong community.” For 40 years or longer, Detert said, “We’ve had a very large Ukraine population in North Port. … They’ve been great citizens of Sarasota County decade after decade, and we’re thrilled to have them.”
Her motion, she said, was to instruct county staff to cease pursuing a contract with Rumble.
When applause began, Maio chastised the audience members and reminded them that the county’s rules of procedure do not allow for such action.
Then Commissioner Ron Cutsinger of Englewood seconded Detert’s motion. “I agree with what you said there,” he told Detert. “I think all of us are just horrified by what we’re seeing happening over there, and any connection with that at all is something I don’t want to be part of.”
Further debate ensues over board action and public reaction
Before the vote, Commissioner Ziegler offered an amendment to the motion, which called for the end of the county’s economic incentive program.
Detert responded that she considered that to be an “unfriendly amendment,” as it would necessitate “a very long discussion” with representatives of the EDC.
Ziegler replied that he felt her motion also would entail “a long discussion and some research, and it is made in response to some public outcry that frankly, is based on false reporting.”
Commissioner Moran ended up seconding Ziegler’s amendment to Detert’s motion.
In discussing that first motion, Ziegler said, “What’s going on in Ukraine is insane. The Russians are obviously not our friends …” He has worked with an individual in Ukraine in the past, he continued, so he emails the person every two or three days to make sure the young man is still alive.
Ziegler next pointed out, “Some individuals in the crowd here” had alleged that he has been siding with Russia. He proceeded to explain that his father lives in Serbia, “which almost borders Ukraine. … If that war gets out of hand and starts crossing borders,” Ziegler added, his father and others on that side of the family will be “at risk.”
“This is the problem with reporting and the problem with political narratives, that people get involved in issues that they don’t fully understand, and they start lobbing attacks at commissioners,” he continued.
Acknowledging his frustration with Detert’s motion, Ziegler said, “We are reacting to the news, and we are reacting to political activists that are pushing this issue.”
Ziegler called untrue the reports that social media companies have removed RT News from their platforms. Anyone can find RT News’ Facebook page, he continued. The company has 7.4 million followers; on Twitter, it has 3 million followers, he added. “I checked just this morning.”
As he spoke, Ziegler pointed out that commissioners have “been very critical” of the EDC in the past. (That was prior to the departure of former EDC CEO Mark Huey in 2019.)
At one point, he paused to add, “I’m going to rant here for a while, because I’m frustrated with this.”
During his remarks, Ziegler repeatedly criticized articles in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, saying the reporters did not understand the economic incentive grants or the state’s open meeting laws.
He stressed that the agreement with Rumble would be for payments up to $825,000. “Why is ‘up to’ an important phrase? [That] means they have to qualify for it.”
When he first learned that “Project Sunshine” involved a tech company that wanted to relocate to Longboat Key, he added, “I’m thinking TikTok” and similar companies.
Among the details the EDC provided to the commissioners, he said, was that the company would create 165 jobs, 41 of which would have average pay of $170,000 a year; the other 124, an average of $80,000 a year.
After Ziegler had been speaking for almost 13½ minutes, Chair Maio interrupted him, saying he would like to let other board members speak.
Ziegler acknowledged the request and then talked for almost another minute before Maio interrupted him again, saying he would like to allow Commissioner Moran to make some comments.
“Yeah, go on,” Ziegler replied.
As the commissioners began talking once more about Ziegler’s amendment to Detert’s motion, Ziegler ended up saying he would not support it. Commissioners Cutsinger and Moran joined Ziegler in voting “No.”
Discussion then ensued about whether Detert should withdraw her original motion. Detert declined to do so. Only Maio joined her in voting for it.
Ziegler then made the new motion, calling for the discussion of the economic incentive program, which passed 5-0.