Siesta Key incorporation bill fails in Legislature

Leaders of Save Siesta Key hope to learn reasons for bill’s stalled status

 With the 2023 session of the Florida Legislature scheduled to end on Friday, May 5, and Siesta Key’s incorporation bill never even having made its way to a vote on the House floor, the island leaders of the self-rule initiative acknowledged their disappointment in a May 1 news release that the Siesta Key Condominium Council sent out to its members on May 3.

As The Sarasota News Leader has reported, the incorporation bill was referred to the House Ways & Means Committee on March 31. That was its final stop, as shown in its history on a legislative webpage.

Neither the members of that committee nor those seated on the State Affairs Committee ever considered the bill, the news release points out.

However, the bill did win unanimous approval in the House Local Administration, Federal Affairs & Special Districts Subcommittee, the release notes. It was “one of the few local bills that achieved that status,” the release adds.

In the May 1 press release, Tim Hensey, chair of the nonprofit group advocating for incorporation — Save Siesta Key — expressed his thanks to state Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota; state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota; and state Rep. Mike Grant, R-Port Charlotte, for their support of the bill. “We would also like to thank our local residents and friends who have generously contributed their time and money to this effort,” Hensey added.

“Rather than speculate as to why our bill failed to advance through its final two committees,” Hensey continued in the release, “we intend to meet with legislative leadership this summer to find out why our bill stalled, and to determine if there is a reasonable path for success in the 2024 Session. We intend to be fully transparent and share more information as it becomes available,” he said.

The release also quoted McFarland: “More than 1,800 bills were filed this year, and while we had strong support for [House Bill] 923, time simply ran out for our initiative to be heard in its two final committees, as is required for passage. Thank you to Save Siesta Key Inc. supporters who made their voices heard through local meetings, events, emails, and phone calls throughout this process.”

The news release was issued by a Tallahassee public relations firm called Ready On 3.

During a Dec. 6, 2022 meeting that Save Siesta Key hosted at Siesta Key Chapel, McFarland cautioned the attendees that it would not be easy to gain sufficient support from her fellow legislators to ensure passage of the incorporation bill. “I have to look at 119 of my fellow legislators,” she said, and convince them to allow a new municipality to be created.

Gruters also pointed out that night, “This is a long road. … We really should have a 4-0 vote [of the Delegation in favor of the bill],” he added; that would provide momentum for the bill’s passage in both chambers of the Florida Legislature. (If the bill ultimately won approval in the both the state House and Senate, Gov. Ron DeSantis had to sign it for it to go into effect. The signing essentially would have started the timeline on a series of steps, including a referendum on incorporation as part of the General Election ballot in November 2024.)

As it turned out, state Rep. James Buchanan, R-Osprey, who was chair of the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation when it met in Sarasota on Jan. 12, declined to support the bill.

Buchanan explained that he still was concerned about the proximity of the planned Town of Siesta Key to the City of Sarasota.

State law calls for a minimum separation of 2 miles between municipalities, as former Delegation members Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota, and Rep. Will Robinson Jr., R-Bradenton, pointed out during the Delegation’s 2022 discussion of the proposed incorporation. The Town of Siesta Key would be closer than 2 miles that to the city.

Robinson, especially, cited that issue as a big concern. He reminded the audience members in January 2022 about the fact that Longboat Key is split between Sarasota and Manatee counties, with residents paying different millage rates. Therefore, he said, support for Siesta’s incorporation would be akin to “setting ourselves up for failure, like Longboat Key.”

Although Save Siesta Key leaders reported last year that legislative staff had assured them that legislators could waive the separation requirement, Buchanan said during the Jan. 12 Delegation meeting that he feared allowing most of Siesta to incorporate that close to the city would set a bad precedent for the rest of the state. “That’s probably my biggest concern.”

Only the portion of the barrier island within Sarasota County’s jurisdiction has been the focus of the incorporation initiative, which began in early 2021. The northernmost part of the Key lies within the city of Sarasota.

During the December 2022 Save Siesta Key meeting at Siesta Key Chapel, Sen. Gruters also explained to the audience, “With supermajority Republican control — House and Senate, there is little appetite to expand government.”

The Save Siesta Key website shows that the nonprofit had tried to raise $150,000 for what it called “Phase 3: Success in Tallahassee.” Fifty contributions added up to only $18,870, the website notes.

A note that The Sarasota News Leader read atop that website’s homepage on May 4 mirrors the quote from Hensey in the May 1 news release.

Hensey, the Save Siesta Key chair, reported to Siesta Key Association members in May 2022 that the nonprofit had hired a well-known Tallahassee lobbyist, attorney David Ramba of the Ramba Consulting Group, to try to facilitate passage of the bill.

He also noted during those remarks that the organization planned to hire a professional public relations firm to ensure better crafting of Save Siesta Key’s message.

The May 1 news release concluded with the following information: “Save Siesta Key Inc., a non-profit 501(c)(4), was formed in 2021 with the goal to get incorporation on the 2024 ballot for the Siesta Key community by working through the legal and political process. The group’s guiding principle is to afford the residents the right to vote on creating their own municipality. The group believes incorporation and responsible self-government provide the community with the opportunity to maintain the unique charm of the island and preserve the quality of life for residents and business owners.”