While awaiting state Ethics Commission’s written opinion about having a county commissioner serve on SANCA board, County Commission agrees to plant more trees at Benderson Park

Commissioner Maio proposes using county fines to pay for young oaks

North Cattlemen Road runs past Nathan Benderson Park, close to Interstate 75 and University Parkway. Rachel Hackney photo

The Sarasota County commissioners on Oct. 7 voted formally — and unanimously — to send a letter to the Florida Commission on Ethics, seeking an opinion about whether one of them can serve on the board of directors of the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA).

In July, Commissioner Alan Maio raised the issue of representation on the SANCA board, likening the situation to the positions commissioners hold on other boards, such as those of Visit Sarasota County and the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County.

However, County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht learned through a telephone conversation with an Ethics Commission attorney that adding a county commissioner to the SANCA board might be seen as a conflict of interest. Therefore, Maio and his colleagues agreed on Sept. 10 that Elbrecht should seek the formal opinion.

The letter the commissioners approved points out that the commissioner on the SANCA board would serve “as an uncompensated, voting member.” SANCA is a nonprofit organization “formed voluntarily by a group of community leaders with the express purpose of providing funding and management of the nature and aquatic activities in Sarasota County’s Nathan Benderson Park,” the letter added.

Sarasota County “has an operating and licensing agreement with SANCA, outlining the roles and responsibilities regarding the operation and maintenance of the Park,” the letter pointed out. Copies of the relevant documents were attached, the letter said.

Commissioner Alan Maio. File photo

After agreeing in September about the need to send the letter, the county commissioners also agreed to have Maio attend the SANCA board meetings, as an observer only. Commissioner Nancy Detert offered that direction in a motion, which her colleagues readily approved.

It was in the capacity of observer, Maio reported on Sept. 25 that he had attended his first SANCA meeting. While listening to the discussion, he continued, he learned of a way the commissioners could improve a key facet of the park that residents have bemoaned over the years: the lack of shade.

“It’s an old borrow pit,” Maio pointed out of the property near University Parkway. “One of the things that pretty consistently comes up is the amount of shade at that big beautiful park of ours.”

Shade structures were installed over the children’s playground area, he noted. However, elsewhere on the grounds, the public has limited options to get out of the sun.

On Sept. 18, the SANCA board members talked about researching how best to ameliorate the situation, Maio continued. That prompted him to undertake some research of his own. He learned, he said, that a planned private donation of cypress trees to the park had to be rejected. “What an absolutely improbable thing to have, with the cypress trees shedding every year.”

Even worse, he added, is the fact that those trees have “knees” or “bumps,” which, Maio said, “pop out 6 to 9 inches …”

He has cypress trees in his yard, he continued; he has “to take an ax” to those knees.

Subsequently, he said, the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR) approved a different species of tree to be planted at Benderson Park, and “many county employees … went out there and planted ’em.”

A new idea

Cargo containers with equipment for teams coming from overseas stand on the grounds of Benderseon Park in August 2017, ahead of the World Rowing Championships in September of that year. Rachel Hackney photo

In thinking about a new initiative at the park, Maio continued, he came up with the idea of planting “200 nice size oak trees, two-and-a-half inches at chest height,” at the potential expense of $250 each.

When he brought up that suggestion to county staff, he said, he learned that fines paid by people who violate county environmental regulations are set aside for mitigation efforts. “We don’t have to go out and pass the hat,” he added, to collect the $40,000 to $50,000 he anticipated the young oaks would cost. “We actually have a pot of money …”

Therefore, Maio said, he would like for his colleagues to consider moving forward with a project to provide more shade at Benderson Park. “It’s our park, and we absolutely have the right to plant trees on it … and get a nice, beautiful — beautiful— big program of oak trees planted there.”

“Well, that’s three ‘beautifuls’ you got in today,” Commissioner Nancy Detert responded. (She often kids Maio about his use of that word, with a nod, as well, to his New York accent.)

“I thought this was going to involve digging on our part, so I would chip in to see you dig,” Detert added.

Participants and visitors gather at Benderson Park for an event in August 2013. File photo

“The lack of shade out there is a big problem,” Detert concurred, “so I would support trees that are appropriate for the area,” especially since he had identified a source of money to pay for the effort.

“I’m sure that since I’m the instigator of this,” Maio replied, “staff will make it clear to me in their own inimitable style that, at the tree-planting ceremony, I’d better be there in jeans and a T-shirt, and they’ll give me a beautiful shovel.”

Commissioner Christian Ziegler also supported the idea of using the mitigation funds for the project.

After he was elected to the board in November 2018, he said, he asked Nicole Rissler, PRNR director, how much use Benderson Park sees between rowing events, because of the lack of shade.

“It ends up being one of our most-used parks, I am told,” Ziegler added.

“Honestly, I had no idea where that story was going,” Commissioner Michael Moran told Maio,” prompting laughter. “I’m OK with [the idea].”

An image from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s website shows Benderson Park, outlined in red, in February 2018. Image courtesy Property Appraiser William Furst

“I support it,” Chair Charles Hines added.

When Hines asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis if a formal vote was necessary, Lewis responded, “I’m OK with consensus.”

Staff will “handle the process,” Lewis continued, and come back to the board with information about the next steps.

“Good idea, Commissioner Maio,” Hines said.