Sarasota County Commission votes to forgo full presentations during ‘routine’ public hearings

Six-month-old pilot program estimated to have saved equivalent of one-and-a-half days of board time

Allen Parsons. Rachel Hackney photo
Allen Parsons. Rachel Hackney photo

Amid an agenda brimming with debate over what might be called “heavy issues,” such as the location of a homeless shelter and purchasing new voting machines, the Sarasota County commissioners last week enjoyed what observers might call an unusual level of levity.

On Nov. 17, county Planning Division Manager Allen Parsons came to the podium to address Item No. 17: “To adopt a resolution amending the Board of County Commissioners Rules of Procedure … to incorporate the procedures for Public Hearings — Presentations Upon Request,” and repealing the current relevant resolution.

“I’m returning to report on the success of a six-month pilot program the board authorized back on May 6,” Parsons told the four commissioners present. (Chair Carolyn Mason was still absent because of an injury she recently suffered, staff told The Sarasota News Leader.)

Parsons pointed out that the pilot program was a team effort involving the Office of the County Attorney, the Commission Services and Clerk of Court offices, and the Planning and Development Services Department.

He explained that it “was an opportunity to test out a way to reduce the length of time on routine public hearing items. … We estimate that about a day-and-a-half worth of time on the board’s agenda has been saved.”

During the pilot period, he added, the only matters addressed through the new method were those relating to Planning and Development Services.

The rumble of chuckles already had begun before Commissioner Charles Hines interjected, “Mr. Chair, can I move to waive the presentation.”

At that point, peals of laughter began ringing through the Commission Chambers inside the County Administration Center on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota.

Commissioner Charles Hines (left) speaks with County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo
Commissioner Charles Hines (left) speaks with County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo

“I think you should,” Vice Chair Al Maio replied.

Parsons carried on: “The recommendation is to expand this [pilot program].”

“Notice that I was polite to you,” Maio told Parsons. “But I agree with Commissioner Hines.”

“I take that as full success,” Parsons responded.

Amid more ripples of laughter, Parsons then recommended that the pilot program be made a permanent part of the board meetings, with the necessary change to the county’s Administrative Code.

As explained in a Nov. 17 memo prepared in advance of the meeting, the County Commission approved the pilot program on May 6 to allow public hearings on “routine Planning and Development Services [agenda items] to be considered without staff or applicant presentations, unless requested by a commissioner.”

The memo continued, “[I]n an ongoing effort to optimize customer service and maximize efficiency, staff proposes to expand the Presentations Upon Request public hearing program to include all County departments.”

A May 6 memo to the board proposed that such items as Zoning Ordinance amendments and Special Exception petitions “with limited or no public interest”; temporary use permits; and extensions of time for a sidewalk to be completed in a development (with a surety or performance bond in place) be among the agenda items to be considered for the alternate public hearing process.

That May 6 memo noted that the process “has been successfully utilized in Manatee County” for the past 10 years.

During the pilot program, the Nov. 17 memo said, a total of 18 Planning and Development Services public hearing matters were scheduled as Presentations Upon Request. Among them were six rezoning petitions and four items pertaining to sidewalk extensions or variances.

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo. File photo
Commissioner Paul Caragiulo. File photo

The Nov. 17 memo added, “For Presentations Upon Request items, staff will still provide, as part of the Board’s packet, any relevant documents, maps or photographs, that might otherwise be part of a presentation.”

Further, staff and the applicants will continue to offer full presentations on matters scheduled for public hearings before the county’s advisory boards, “as applicable,” the Nov. 17 memo pointed out.

At the conclusion of Parson’s remarks last week, Commissioner Paul Caragiulo made the motion to make the program a permanent facet of board procedure. Hines seconded the motion.

“I think that every once in a while, government gets it right,” Caragiulo said. “This is one of those cases. It’s probably one of the best un-government-like things, and it has worked out very well.”

“It’s a good balance,” Hines added. If a board member has a question, he pointed out, staff can make a presentation. “It’s kind of a no-brainer situation when you’re waiving a 2-foot easement on the back of a house for a pool,” he said.

“So, great job,” Hines told Parsons, “and sorry for the joke. It was just too easy.”

The motion then passed unanimously.