Board calls for Planning Commission to get back to work on land-development issues, though telephone or videoconference sessions may be held
The Sarasota County commissioners have affirmed their desire to continue holding meetings in person at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota, at least through May.
Staff has explained that the space and the technology available in the Commission Chambers at 1660 Ringling Blvd. make it easier for the board members and staff to handle the sessions while observing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines about social distancing.
However, during their April 8 meeting, the commissioners directed County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to initiate the process to allow one advisory board — the Planning Commission — to begin conducting sessions remotely, via telephone or videoconferencing software.
During their March 24 meeting, the county commissioners had agreed with Lewis’ recommendation to cancel all advisory board sessions for April.
During the April 8 discussion, Commissioner Alan Maio advocated for the Planning Commission members to be present in Chambers at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota. “There is a tremendous amount of give and take,” he said of that board’s debates during public hearings. “I do not know, frankly, how that happens remotely,” Maio added, referring to alternatives allowed through an Executive Order that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed in March.
The Planning Commission deals primarily with land-development applications, though it also advises the County Commission on the adoption of amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan. It long has been considered the County Commission’s most influential advisory board, as evidenced by the submission of multiple applications whenever a seat becomes vacant.
If the members of the Planning Commission want to meet in person, Maio continued, “We should allow them to meet in person.”
“We don’t want business to stop here,” Chair Michael Moran said, especially in terms of land use issues and, for other examples, work on roads, bridges and sewer systems.
Yet, Commissioner Christian Ziegler pointed out of the planning commissioners, “They weren’t elected. … I don’t know if they really need to be sitting up here.” He called for continuing to prohibit gatherings of the public “when it’s not necessary.”
Instead, Ziegler suggested the planning commissioners could conduct a meeting by telephone or through videoconferencing software, noting that that could “be a test case for us. … Let them report back.”
Earlier, the county commissioners unanimously approved a resolution drawn up by the Office of the County Attorney to allow them to suspend Sarasota County rules for physical quorums for public meetings, in accord with the action DeSantis took in March. The resolution also would allow the county administrator “to adopt specific rules” implementing remote meeting technology, County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht explained.
Lewis and Elbrecht both pointed out that the resolution “would give the [County Commission] some flexibility.”
“I think we need as much flexibility as possible, just in case,” Ziegler said, referring to uncertainty about how the COVID-19 public health crisis will continue to affect the community. “Everyone’s changing their lives.”
Commissioner Charles Hines made the motion to approve the resolution; however, he added that virtual or telephonic meetings take place “only in extreme circumstances” for the County Commission.
Commissioner Nancy Detert seconded the motion.
In bringing up the advisory board issue, Lewis prefaced his comments by saying, “This one’s a little bit trickier.”
He reminded the commissioners that all the advisory board members are volunteers, “but some of your advisory boards play a very, very critical role in the development activities in our county.”
Still, Lewis said, “I’d hate to ask for somebody who didn’t run for office to have to come in for [a meeting].”
Lewis then sought direction from the commissioners about whether to proceed with working out the details of Planning Commission sessions while the pandemic remains underway.
Chair Moran was the first to suggest that the planning commissioners could meet via telephone or videoconferencing software. “We’re not mandating that they meet face-to-face.”
If staff could arrange a means of allowing “meaningful public input,” Lewis said, his preference would be for the planning commissioners to meet remotely.
Lewis added that he would need to work with the Office of the County Attorney; the Office of the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller, who oversees the Board of Records staff members who clerk for the county’s public meetings; the county’s Information Technology staff; and the Communications staff to make it feasible for members of the public to participate in virtual Planning Commission meetings.
“I just want to give them as much flexibility as possible,” Ziegler said of the planning commissioners. “They can decide if they want to meet in person …”
“Commissioner Ziegler, I completely agree with you,” Maio said.
Then Commissioner Detert asked for clarification about whether the governor’s Executive Order that Lewis and County Attorney Elbrecht referenced earlier waived the need for a quorum, “so those that are uncomfortable can just stay home.”
The Executive Order said no physical quorum would be necessary for such a meeting, Elbrecht told her.
Then members could phone in to participate? Detert asked.
“Correct,” Elbrecht responded.
“OK,” Detert told him.
“It’s also possible” that the petitioners for some public hearings might want delays, Lewis pointed out, as has been the case for County Commission meetings during the pandemic. If a petitioner volunteers to delay the hearing of an item, Lewis said, “We’ll let ’em …”
Maio replied that he trusted Lewis. Nonetheless, Maio said, “I just hope free will on the part of the petitioners is exercised.”
The South County question
During the April 8 discussion, Lewis also brought up the fact that public hearings would need to be scheduled at some point for County Commission meetings, and a significant number of those hearings pertain to South County issues. “We can’t continue to let them back up forever.”
Maio was the first to suggest that people could drive from South County to downtown Sarasota for such hearings, calling his comments “My 18 cents on that.”
Commissioner Detert agreed with Maio on the desire not to continue to push back hearings on South County matters. Perhaps people who would like to comment on those petitions, she said, could submit their statements to the board chair at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting. Then, Chair Moran could read them into the record.
Otherwise, she concurred with Maio that South County residents could drive to Sarasota. “We know it’s inconvenient, but our people are pretty bright, and they know we’re in an emergency situation.”
“I say let’s have the meetings up in North County,” Commissioner Ziegler added. “I don’t think anyone’s going to gripe if they have to drive from Venice to Sarasota if they know … we have more space [here, with better logistics.] It [also] takes takes less staff resources and time when that should be focused on the emergency at hand.”