The arrest of Bob Waechter for felony identity theft of fellow Republican Lourdes Ramirez laid bare a political machine in Sarasota dedicated to advancing its own interests within the Republican party. Voters often believe casting a ballot for a Republican assures they are choosing a fiscal conservative. All Republican candidates assure us they will govern ethically. But in Sarasota County, our Republican County Commission’s poor money management, cronyism and selective ethics enforcement betray sound fiscal and ethical values. In the August 26 primary, voters must weigh who will deliver on those values.
In recent years our County Commission executed numerous agreements that failed to protect us. The $650,000 grant to Sanborn Studios is one example—hundreds of thousands given without proper vetting of the firm (spotty records in the film industry at best) without effective means to recoup the dollars if promised jobs didn’t materialize (such as a personal guarantee). While lavishing millions on a stadium renovation, the Commission permitted the Orioles to position their private fundraising and construction of the Cal Ripken Youth Academy as a sure thing under oath—when the Commission knew the agreement didn’t nail it down. The Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Association promised to raise $20 million for the rowing facility when it ballooned from a $2-3 million project to $40 million. Today, the venue is projected to cost at least $52 million. With $10 million in the state grants, $20 million from a County bond and millions more from the County in infrastructure and maintenance obligations, SANCA has yet to engage in serious private fundraising. For what is truly a publicly funded facility, the County’s agreement with SANCA exempts the nonprofit from County procurement standards. There are too many poor decisions with these and other deals to list.
The County Commission opened 2050 planning standards to revision at the request of six firms—and to the exclusion of equal and meaningful public engagement. The proposed changes take enforcement teeth out of taxpayer protections like fiscal neutrality and put the value of existing neighborhoods at risk.
What about ethics? Reports indicate the firing of the County ethics officer was triggered by his investigation into an event firm owned by Commissioner Joe Barbetta being hired by SANCA. Steve Uebelacker believed the County Commission should be subject to the same ethical standards as employees. According to Integrity Florida, uniform standards for County employees and elected officials are an ethical no-brainer. Uebelacker lost his job for that belief.
Among the candidates, ties to the taxpayers and to the machine are clear. Lourdes Ramirez has been a vocal advocate for ethics, transparency and fiscally sound government. Her standards were so threatening Waechter took out a credit card in her name and contributed to Democrats so he could set her up for failure in the Republican primary. Shannon Snyder’s record as a City Commissioner indicates his willingness to reverse and question planning decisions, like a proposed Walmart out of compliance with City codes. His outrage at Uebelacker’s firing is heartening.
Ties to narrow development interests are evident in financial reports for two Commission candidates, Al Maio and Paul Caragiulo. Caragiulo’s voting record on development issues in the City is concerning, particularly his willingness to allow one inexperienced developer to tie up the Sarasota Quay with a bad site plan for thirty years (all of his colleagues voted against it). Neither Maio nor Caragiulo expressed concern over the rationale for firing Mr. Uebelacker. Under Maio’s leadership, Kimley Horn proposed the County spend $3,500 apiece for trashcans on the Siesta Key improvement project. Will Mr. Maio be our best bet to say no to wasteful spending?
All Republicans aren’t created equal. Let’s choose wisely.