Higher ethical standards needed
Originally published June 22, 2013
During his recent visit to Sarasota, Andres Duany said he’d been told during a number of meetings that development in Sarasota is difficult because the political climate here is particularly divisive. During his remarks at the Downtown Sarasota Alliance dinner and the joint City and County Commission meeting, Mr. Duany said the politics around development in Sarasota are not worse than anywhere else—they’re the same. Duany mentioned the importance of building trust with the community to create an environment conducive to development. Trust in local government is lacking, for good reason.
Imagine learning two lots in your neighborhood previously classified residential in the City comprehensive plan changed to a commercial classification, which opens the door to a 7-Eleven being built. Such a change requires a City Commission super majority (4-1) vote. Yet there was no public hearing, no documented City Commission vote, no opportunity for public input, no explanation of how it happened. Residents of the City’s Tahiti Park neighborhood are dealing with this situation.
Take the failed Walmart project. City rules prohibiting a department store were overlooked. Instead of squarely dealing with the inconsistency and advising the developer request a variance or comply with the code, the project was approved. The Alta Vista neighborhood appealed, and evidence they presented resulted in the City Commission reversing the Planning Board’s 3-2 decision. Catching and addressing the Walmart site plan problems up front and collaborating with the community may not have changed the outcome, but residents and developers would both have greater trust in City planning processes.
Recently at the County level, a sitting planning commissioner lobbied on behalf of his client for the implementation of TDRs (transfer of development rights). Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government requested the County Ethics and Compliance Office investigate this apparent conflict of interest. We learned Sarasota County does not have local ethical standards for advisory board members. The County requires any advisory board ethics questions to be referred to the state. No trust there—Florida’s ethics enforcement earned an “F” rating from State Integrity Investigation, a national corruption watchdog organization.
When County advisory board member Bob Waechter was captured on videotape engaged in stealing the identity of a fellow Republican, no County policy prevented him from continuing to serve on County advisory boards (he continued to serve until the Commission was questioned about his role). The County has no internal policies requiring a leave of absence or County ethics inquiry when evidence exists of a County advisory board member engaging in possibly illegal or unethical behavior.
When it comes to creating trust, all stakeholders must have a seat at the table. One community leader recounts how the County instructed a group advocating for chicken-keeping to get approval from local neighborhood associations, including the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations and the Sarasota Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations, and how the same groups were excluded from numerous County meetings held to discuss important changes to the County’s Comprehensive Plan. Likewise, it seems Mr. Duany made the rounds with local business leaders and public officials, but did his hosts include board members from CCNA, CONA or other neighborhood groups engaged in planning oversight?
In planning development, problems or changes under the radar breed mistrust, while clarity is better for everyone, including Walmart. Cherry-picking which stakeholders are worthy of a seat at the table also breeds mistrust. Sarasota deserves ethical standards that have earned an “A” rating, not an “F.” If local government addresses ethical and planning questions inclusively, with respect, trust can be established. When that happens, quality development can take off.
It is reasonable for the public to expect advisory board members to refrain from lobbying the County on behalf of clients.
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