Two Sarasota legislators and County Commissioner Ziegler indicate open mind about latest Siesta Key incorporation initiative, leader of Save Siesta Key says

Nonprofit working to meet Sept. 1 deadline to submit documents to state

This is a banner from the Save Siesta Key website.

A leader of the nonprofit organization heading up the latest effort to incorporate Siesta Key says state Rep. Fiona McFarland and state Sen. Joe Gruters, both Republicans who live in Sarasota, have indicated they have open minds about the undertaking.

During the most recent public meeting conducted by the board of Save Siesta Key, held on May 19 at Siesta Key Chapel, Harry Anand stressed, “The very, very important thing [is] we are going to need the support of our local delegation in Tallahassee.”

Gruters and McFarland, he continued, “will have to champion this in Tallahassee …”

The other Florida House members who represent part of Sarasota County are Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota (District 73); Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton (District 71); Rep. James Buchanan, R-Osprey (District 74); and Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg (District 70).

The goal, Save Siesta Key board members said, is to have the incorporation in effect by Jan 1, 2023. To do so, they pointed out, they will need to file a state-mandated feasibility study by Sept. 1.

The Legislature would have to approve a special bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis then would need to sign, before a referendum could be conducted on the incorporation issue, Anand explained.

Save Siesta Key board member Rick Munroe pointed out that 50% of the voters in the referendum, plus one, would have to approve incorporation for the Key to become a municipality.

If the referendum is successful, he added, members of the town council or commission would be elected in the November 2022 General Election.

State Sen. Joe Gruters. Photo from the Florida Senate website

Gruters and McFarland said they would do “what the community is basically asking for,” Anand added. “They need to know that there is community support for [incorporation].”

Moreover, Anand reported, County Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who represents the northern part of the Key as part of District 2, also has said he has an open mind about the process. Ziegler is interested in the findings of the feasibility study that Save Siesta Key has to produce as part of the state stipulations for incorporation, Anand told the audience of approximately 200 people.

“Technically, the county has no say in [the incorporation issue],” Anand pointed out. “But can [the commissioners] block it? … It’s a political process, at the end of the day.”

It will become much more difficult for any of them to oppose it, Anand added, if it is clear that the majority of Siesta Key residents are in favor of incorporation.

Board member Tracy Jackson urged residents to fill out a short survey on the organization’s website, which the leadership hopes will provide one example of overwhelming support.

As of 3 p.m. on May 18, she said, 95% of the respondents to the survey noted that they are interested in establishing their own municipality — 286.

“That’s a big number,” Jackson pointed out.

Another question asks whether residents feel they are represented in regard to decisions that affect the island, Jackson noted. Another large majority — 91% — 272 — marked “No,” she added.

Jackson also encouraged residents and business owners to sign petitions that Save Siesta Key has created. The nonprofit needs to show that about 10% of the voting population on the island favors incorporation, Anand said.

Chapter 165 of the Florida Statutes lays out all the criteria that must be met for an incorporation initiative to proceed for legislative consideration. Jackson explained to Siesta Key Association members in early May that Save Siesta Key is focused on incorporating only the portion of the barrier island that is within the county’s jurisdiction; the northern part of the Key is within the City of Sarasota.

This is a section of Florida Statute 165, which lays out guidelines for the incorporation of municipalities. Image courtesy State of Florida

On May 19, Jackson told the audience that, as of that evening, eight “ambassadors” had volunteered to help get petitions signed in their neighborhoods or condominium communities. The organization is hoping to add another 22, for a total of 30 ambassadors, she said.

The financial issues

William Underwood. Image from his LinkedIn account

Save Siesta Key, which will operate under 501(c)(4) nonprofit status, has hired William Underwood of Jensen Beach to handle the fiscal part of that study, board members noted during the May 19 meeting.

(Underwood is a partner with Underwood Management Services Group LLC, and he is a past manager of the Town of Loxahatchee Groves, his LinkedIn account says. The South Florida Sun Sentinel reported in January 2019 that the Loxahatchee Town Council voted unanimously to terminate the contract with Underwood and his management company, noting that they had “been the subject of controversy among residents who say they are unhappy with road conditions, contract costs, code enforcement and other issues.” However, the mayor defended Underwood, the Sun Sentinel noted.)

Save Siesta Key is paying Underwood about $12,000 for his work, Jackson, told the May 19 audience at Siesta Key Chapel.

She pointed out that the nonprofit will need about $125,000 altogether. Of that, she said, $75,000 is expected to cover the cost of the full feasibility study. The rest of the money will go toward the services of an attorney to help write the necessary charter for the new town or village, Jackson added, “and we have operating costs.”

As of the time of the meeting, she said, the organization had raised about $30,000.

As of the morning of June 3, contributions totaled $70,090, the website said.

Lots of questions

Members of the audience had a number of questions for the board. Some voiced concerns about adding another “layer of government,” and one man expressed worry that if the Key were incorporated, the town council members would end up bowing to special interests, as the man claimed county commissioners have done.

“They work for the people that are donating to them,” the man said of the commissioners.

Audience members at the May 19 meeting at Siesta Key Chapel raise their hands in response to a question posed by Save Siesta Key board member Tracy Jackson. Most of the nonprofit’s directors are seated at the front of the room. Image from the YouTube video of the meeting

Addressing John Davidson founder of Davidson Drugs and chair of the board, the man added, “You had [Alan] Maio signs all over your businesses” when Commissioner Maio was campaigning in 2018 for his second term on the county board.

“I did support Al Maio,” Davidson replied. “It was a mistake. I would not do it again.”

Anand and Jackson talked of plans for the council members or town commissioners of Siesta Key to work without pay. They also pointed to planning for what they described as “government light,” with perhaps only six or seven town employees.

Moreover, Anand said, if a town leader proved to be dedicated to special interests and not the best interests of the island, voters could remove that person from the town board.

Harry Anand is the former mayor of a village in New York State. Image from the Save Siesta Key website

Save Siesta Key envisions a nonpartisan council with members who would be elected without campaigning, Anand added.

When a person asked whether he meant the candidates would not be able to accept contributions from residents or businesses, Anand replied, “I can’t say they will not.”

The same audience member then said he would prefer to have paid town board members instead of letting candidates take campaign donations.

Anand responded that that could be an option.

(Jackson pointed out earlier during the meeting that the town charter would lay out how the government would function.)

One individual suggested that each campaign contribution be restricted to $5, while another proposed term limits, “so no one establishes these long-term relationships and has the opportunity to put their finger in the cookie jar.”

The Save Siesta Key board members already have agreed that term limits would be part of the charter, Jackson responded.

Noting the proposed effective date of Jan. 1 2023 for the Town of Siesta Key, another audience member asked, “We can’t undo anything that’s already been decided by the county [before then]?”

“We can’t change the past,” Jackson told him, “but we can change the future.”

Treasurer Stephen Lexow added, “We won’t have any say over the four hotel projects [proposed on the island].” (See the related article in this issue.)

However, he reminded the audience members that Save Siesta Key Chair John Davidson launched an incorporation initiative in the late 1990s. Although it was not successful, Lexow continued, county leaders “were willing to negotiate the Siesta Key Overlay District,” which contains all of the island’s zoning regulations.

In working toward incorporation once again, Lexow said, “We’ll give more leverage to what the Siesta Key Coalition is doing.”

The Coalition, which was organized last summer, opposes projects on Siesta that do not comply with existing zoning regulations. The development teams involved with the four proposed hotels all are seeking Special Exceptions from the County Commission, as well as county Comprehensive Plan and zoning changes.