Access to public records

Under current policy, a fee is charged for gathering materials and for any copies or discs that are requested.  The directive does not include a clear provision, establishing a consistent fee to be charged for time a staff member spends supervising a records review.

At the 8/29/2013 Commission meeting, a discussion is held about establishing such a fee:

Because state law allows municipalities to charge a supervision fee… doesn’t make it OK.  We pay for the facilities to house the records and for the staff that creates them, this is fair and reasonable.  Instead of establishing a fee to review records, a reasonable option (allowing for easy access while insuring the integrity of the records) would be to set up an open area for the review of public records.  An area where numerous staff are already present and able to observe the review.  This procedure works for other municipalities, why not Sarasota?

While Sarasota County would like to give the impression that trust and “Sunshine” are a priority, setting up additional fees, limited access to Commissioner emails… sets up roadblocks that are neither easy or affordable.  Is convenient, low-cost public records access really a County priority?

In the information age, records should be cheap and easy to access, even free.  North Port and the City of Sarasota have public computers that provide full access to Commission e-mails.  All Venice Commission e-mails can be searched on their website.

Read more about public access on The Detail“Whose records are they anyway?”

Call to Action:

At Tuesday’s SCRG meeting, we agreed to encourage citizens to write to the County Commission to protest their intention to charge citizens who review public records a fee for staff supervision.

Please send a letter to the editor to the newspaper of your choice, and let them know you object to unnecessary fees for public records access.  If other municipalities don’t charge, Sarasota shouldn’t either.

Effective LTE Suggestions:  Newspapers do not want to print material that appears in another publication.  It’s preferable to send your letter individually (no mass mailings) to one (maybe two) publications.  Newspapers require your name, address and phone be submitted along with the letter so they may verify (if they choose to) that you are a real person.  Your personal views will get the best reception. Resist cutting and pasting this or other commentary

Venice Gondolier, North Port Sun 

The Observer:  (please choose the one that serves your location)

longboatletters@yourobserver.com

eastcountyletters@yourobserver.com

sarasotaletters@yourobserver.com

Sarasota News Leader:

letters@sarasotanewsleader.com

Sarasota Herald Tribune

SRQ Daily
Jacob.Ogles@srqmediagroup.com

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Roland Piccone responds to ethics question

In July of 2012, the Sarasota Herald Tribune reported that a sitting planning commissioner, Mr. Roland Piccone, advocated for the initiation of County TDR sales to benefit his client, Lindvest.  The newspaper also reported the last time someone bought development rights in Sarasota County, outside the county lands program, was two decades ago.

As sitting planning commissioner, lobbying the County Commission on a policy issue to benefit a client, did not appear to comport with best ethical practices, and SCRG requested an ethics inquiry.

That request was included in a TDR meeting packet and prompted this e-mail response from the planning commissioner, Mr. Piccone.

(The email addresses have not been included for reasons of privacy)

On Monday June 23, 2013, Roland Picone sent this email to SCRG:

Ladies:

Over the weekend, I had an opportunity to review the back-up materials that accompany the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners meeting Agenda for Wednesday June 5th. One of the agenda items to be addressed by the Commissioners is the issue of the Transfer of Development Rights (TDRs) associated with the Sarasota 2050 Comprehensive Plan. The back-up materials include a 59 page accumulation of letters/emails, etc that were sent to the Commissioners suggesting various changes for Sarasota 2050, which is currently under review. Among those materials, I was surprised and somewhat bemused to view letters authored by both of you alleging, recklessly,  that an impropriety was committed by me, for raising the TDR issue on more than one occasion, in light of the fact that I am a sitting Planning Commissioner, and whilst I also had a client who had concerns about TDRs. The public record will disclose that over the last fourteen and one-half years that I have served on the County Planning Commission there has been, perhaps, five or six instances when I have judiciously recused myself from deliberating and voting on an item that might have benefitted one of my clients. I take my job on the PC very seriously, and I have always observed the rules, accordingly.

The twentieth century genius and Nobel Prize winner, Albert Einstein, while authoring one of his thesis, once stated, “ . . . .  a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” , suggesting that prior to one making bizarre profound statements, orally or in writing, on a specific subject matter, one should first become completely informed on the subject.  Your emails prove the brilliance of Einstein’s statement.

You should know that Sarasota 2050 has been part of our comprehensive plan since 2002, albeit that the plan had an unsuccessful court challenge, and the County prevailed ten years ago.

You should know that the TDR component of Sarasota 2050 has always been part of the Plan, BUT HAS NEVER BEEN DETAILED  FOR IMPLEMENTATION. Establishing the detailed process and sale value of the Development rights on environmentally sensitive lands is within the sole prerogative of the Board of County Commissioners, and falls outside of the role and scope of duties of the Planning Commission.

You should know that the TDR component does not compromise the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Purchase Initiative. The purchasing and transferring of the development rights to a receiving zone will provide the County with revenues with which more environmentally sensitive land (s) may be purchased by the County. The lands from which the development rights are removed, may never be developed upon. They shall remain pristine and untouched in perpetuity, except for cosmetic maintenance by the County (or their agent).

You should know that I am the only remaining Planning Commissioner who worked on Sarasota 2050 over thirteen years ago, and I have always felt that the fundamental policies, goals and objectives of 2050  were basically solid, and an abundance of cautious optimistic flexibility would facilitate full implementation of the plan.

In spite of the obstructionists, I’ve been hopeful for several years that the plan might have been fully implemented during my service on the Planning Commission; hence, my outspoken passion to see the TDR element implemented. Regrettably, due to term limits, I will not witness the full implementation of Sarasota 2050 during my tenure of service.

As an aside, you should be informed that our former  client had every right  to pursue resolution of the TDR issue, because they wished to comply with all the elements of the Sarasota 2050 Comprehensive plan, which was passed by the BCC  by a vote of 4-1, and has been declared entirely legal and lawful nearly a decade ago..

 Roland Piccone, Member Sarasota County Planning Commission and a 28 year resident of the County

On June 18, SCRG replied to Mr Piccone, also Cc the County Commission, Steven DeMarsh, and Tom Tryon:

Dear Mr. Piccone,

I appreciate your willingness to engage on this important topic.  The state of Florida, unfortunately, has a very poor record when it comes to embracing  sound ethical practices.  Florida earned a C- ranking in corruption risk from State Integrity Investigation, and Florida’s ethics enforcement agencies earned an “F”.  Many citizens are concerned about how local and state government ethics standards are determined and implemented.

Whether TDRs exist in the Comp Plan is entirely separate from whether or not it is wise to implement them at a particular time and for a particular purpose.  It is also not necessary to sell TDRs culled from land in the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP) to ensure ESLPP lands will not be developed, as your e-mail suggests.   But a discussion of the pros and cons of TDRs isn’t the central concern of this communication – it’s the ethics question.

In July 2012, the Sarasota Herald Tribune, in an article titled “County Moves Toward Selling Development Rights” reported: “Lindvest, the developer with 450 acres south of Lakewood Ranch, will likely end up getting the go-ahead to build more densely through the commission’s action.

A planning commissioner, Roland Piccone, is working for Lindvest and had encouraged commissioners to OK the sale of the rights. Lindvest wants to buy 1,000 rights — on top of the 350 the company already owns — for a planned 1,350-home community. County staff said the last time someone bought development rights, outside of the county lands program, was 20 years ago.”           

Here is one definition of conflict of interest:

“A conflict of interest is a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgment or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest.”[1] Primary interest refers to the principal goals of the profession or activity, such as the protection of clients, the health of patients, the integrity of research, and the duties of public office. Secondary interest includes not only financial gain but also such motives as the desire for professional advancement and the wish to do favors for family and friends, but conflict of interest rules usually focus on financial relationships because they are relatively more objective, fungible, and quantifiable. The secondary interests are not treated as wrong in themselves, but become objectionable when they are believed to have greater weight than the primary interests.  The conflict in a conflict of interest exists whether or not a particular individual is actually influenced by the secondary interest. It exists if the circumstances are reasonably believed (on the basis of past experience and objective evidence) to create a risk that decisions may be unduly influenced by secondary interests.

The SCRG request for a County ethics inquiry into the propriety of a sitting planning commissioner lobbying the County Commission to implement a public policy that benefits a current or former client is reasonable, in my view, and certainly not reckless.  It is reasonable for the public to expect advisory board members to refrain from lobbying the County on behalf of clients.

You may be interested to know that the County does not have local standards for advisory boards regarding ethics.  The County requires any ethics questions regarding how their advisory boards function to be referred to the state (see Florida’s ethics enforcement grade, above) .  This certainly isn’t what I expected when the County hired a County ethics officer.  When Mr. 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.  No policy exists 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.

Thank you for acknowledging your advocacy for TDRs and your client relationship.  We disagree on this one.   Perhaps we can agree that there is a need for the County to adopt and implement ethical standards which have earned an “A” rating.  We certainly shouldn’t be satisfied with ethical standards which are among the worst in the nation.

Best regards,

Cathy Antunes

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Non-partisan election

In 2012, the Supervisor of Elections race between incumbent Kathy Dent (R) and Jon Thaxton (R) would have been an open primary, until Victoria Brill entered the race as a write in candidate.  She later admitted her sole purpose for entering the race was to close the primary.  As a result of Ms Brill’s actions… over 150,000 registered voters were denied their right to vote.

Registered voters should not be denied the right to vote and we support the effort to amend the County Charter, making county offices non-partisan.

Open Our Elections is the local committee working to promote a ballot measure to amend the County Charter to provide a non-partisan election rather than a partisan primary and a general election.

The offices included in the measure are County Commissioner, Charter Review Board, Clerk of Circuit Court, Property Appraiser, Tax Collector, Supervisor of Elections and Sheriff.  If approved, candidates for these offices would be listed on our ballots with no party affiliation after their names.

If you support non-partisan elections, print the Open Our Elections Petition, fill it out and mail it to 4411 Bee Ridge Rd, Unit 622, Sarasota Fl 34233.

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Objections to Transfer of Development Rights

The County is pursuing a plan to sell development rights associated with public lands purchased through the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Purchase Program .  ESLPP of Sarasota County is a voter-approved and taxpayer-funded program designed to acquire and protect natural lands.  Approved via charter amendment in 1999 by 67% of Sarasota voters, the ESLPP taxes residents at “not more than 0.25 mill” for “acquiring, protecting and managing environmentally sensitive lands.”

Sarasota County residents have tens of millions invested in protected environmentally sensitive public lands and the transfer of developments rights to those lands raises the following objections:

  • Stripping preserved public land of its associated development rights so they can be sold to increase development elsewhere was not approved by voters in 1999.  Voters approved the land purchases so the land would be protected. Voters did not approve selling the development rights.
  • Mass purchases of development rights from the government undermines private property rights.  Land use regulation is intended to ensure necessary infrastructure is in place before development occurs and adjacent uses are compatible in character. When “receiving zones” are established for development rights, the County is acknowledging the infrastructure is or will be available and the intended uses are compatible within the zone. If that is the case, why should property owners be required to buy development rights from the government? Don’t those allowable uses already belong to the property owner?
  • The County should allow private landowners to sell TDRs, not the government.  Let the market determine the price of TDRs, not the County.  The Environmentally Sensitive Lands Oversight Committee  has raised concerns about how the County determines TDR prices.  If TDRs are purchased from private landowners, more land is preserved, public development rights are preserved, the free market determines price.  Why would a Republican County Commission prefer a government TDR market over the private sector?
  • “County moves towards selling development rights”.  The push to sell County TDRs was initiated by a sitting planning commissioner to benefit his client.  The Sarasota Herald reported “A planning commissioner, Roland Piccone, is working for Lindvest and had encouraged commissioners to OK the sale of the rights. Lindvest wants to buy 1,000 rights — on top of the 350 the company already owns — for a planned 1,350-home community. County staff said the last time someone bought development rights, outside of the county lands program, was 20 years ago.”
  • Public TDR’s should only be sold if the sale serves an important public purpose that supports the health, education or welfare of the citizenry who financed the ESLPP land purchases.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Sarasota 2050

9.    PLANNING AND DEVELOPMENT SERVICES
A.    To consider assigning the value of County-owned Transfer of Development Rights
(TDR) associated with the Sarasota 2050 Resource Management Area (RMA) policies at ten percent of the median sales price of a single-family residential unit or residential condominium unit (receiving site housing product) within the County as established by the Sarasota Association of Realtors Multiple Listing Service (MLS) June Statistics report with the values updated annually;
B.    To consider the implementation of a Sarasota 2050 RMA TDR Pilot Program using
approximately 503 acres of County-owned environmentally sensitive land identified as the Deer Prairie Creek – Churchill site, located south of Interstate 75 (I-75), as the Pilot Program site; and to authorize the County Administrator, or Designee, to list potential TDRs derivable from this site on the Sarasota County TDR web page;
C.    To consider authorizing the County Administrator, or Designee, to proceed with the processing of the proposed County-initiated Comprehensive Plan Amendment to revise Sarasota 2050 Policy TDR 1.6, Method of Transfer Conditions, to derive development rights from eligible County-owned properties; and to waive the scoping requirement, pursuant to Section 94-85 of the County Code (Ordinance No.2011-070).

Other objections include the county-initiated comprehensive plan amendment to revise Sarasota 2050 Policy TDR 1.6, Method of Transfer Conditions, to derive development rights from eligible county-owned properties; and to waive the scoping requirement, pursuant to Section 94-85 of the county code (Ordinance No. 2011-070).

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Sarasota City 2nd Election

On May 14th, two City Commissioners will be elected to fill two At-Large Seats, currently held by Suzanne Atwell and Terry Turner.

As the election draws near…

Monday night the three finalists, Suzanne Atwell, Susan Chapman , and Richard Dorfman , met with the community at a forum hosted by CONA.  Kafi Benz moderated and asked the candidates questions ranging from re-visiting parking meters to whether or not they would favor a “Strong Mayor” initiative.

Read more about the CONA forum:  “Questions sharpen in Sarasota race”The city commission candidates know each other’s talking points by now. Richard Dorfman wants to put paychecks in people’s hands. Suzanne Atwell governs from the center. Susan Chapman was a team player on several local boards.

Why vote?…

The candidates work hard to gain your vote and in the March election, less than 20% of the registered voters turned out.  Once elected, our commissioners decide how to spend your money.  From infrastructure, supporting the arts, providing and maintaining sports venues and protecting our City’s citizens, they are making decisions that affect the quality of life for our community.  With so much at stake, it’s a small investment in time on our part to research the candidates and vote.

To be eligible to vote in the May 14th election, residents of the City of Sarasota must be registered by Monday, April 15. New voter registrations must be postmarked by April 15 or delivered in person to the Supervisor of Elections office no later than 5 PM, April 15.

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