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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