Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Charles Hines and Keith Fitzgerald at CONA May 11

The legislative session   how will it affect us?
Sarasota - At the May 112015 meeting of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations  CONA, their guest speaker, Commissioner Charles Hines, will speak about what the county commission and administration have been following during the current legislative session in Tallahassee and how neighborhoods will be affected by the actions of the legislators.
   Following that brief to his constituents, Commissioner Hines will engage in a discussion with Keith Fitzgerald on this topic and related issues.  
   CONA audiences need no introduction to Keith Fitzgerald, during the last decade he frequently has been invited as a guest speaker. He is a resident of the Indian Beach  Sapphire Shores neighborhood, a professor of political science at New College, a former state representative, and the author of Face of the Nation: Immigration, the State, and the National Identity.
   Following the discussion, written questions submitted by members and from the audience will be asked of the guest speakers.  
   The evening promises to be informative, especially for those of us who have been wondering just what is going on during the legislative session and how it will affect us.
   CONA meetings are open to the public as well as members of the seventy-two associations the organization represents and its individual members.  
   CONA meets regularly on second Mondays of the month at 7:00 p.m. at the Sarasota Garden Club, 1131 Boulevard of the Arts in Sarasota, which is at the intersection of Tamiami Trail, south of the Municipal Auditorium. Parking and the entrance are reached from Van Wezel Way. A social at 6:30 p.m. precedes the meeting.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Prince of Dark Money

Prince of Dark Money

The Detail


School Board Member Frank Kovach announced this week he will not run for reelection after 16 years of service. Kovach said the recent nonpartisan school board race was “corrupted by cash” and he expects the trend to continue. Former Sarasota GOP chair Eric Robinson is interested in running for the School Board.  Robinson expects to decide by June 1. 

When Kovach first ran for school board in 2000, $10,000 for a campaign would have been a lot. Last fall’s race between Bridget Zeigler and Ken March had each candidate raising over $51,000 and $72,000, respectively, with Zeigler getting support from a shadowy political action committee called Citizens Against Taxation. Eric Robinson was the PAC’s chair, treasurer and registered agent.

The Herald-Tribune reported last fall on difficulty tracing a major donor to the Citizens for Taxation PAC.  The donor in question, Phoenix Media, gave $45,000 to the PAC. Robinson refused to disclose who was behind Phoenix Media and the Zeigler PAC financed mailers, saying “donors don’t want to be identified.” Robinson refused to say where Phoenix Media was based (the company doesn’t do business in Florida) and told the newspaper “You’re not going to find it.”  Robinson would only affirm the company filed LLC paperwork in the United States.

My research turned up five Phoenix Media LLCs in the United States—they are in New York, New Jersey, South Carolina, Oregon and Wyoming.  The NJ and NY Phoenix LLCs don’t list registered agents, but have been in existence since 1997 and 2002. The Oregon and South Carolina Phoenix LLCs seemed unremarkable, with registered agents who are actual people. Phoenix Media, LLC in Cheyenne, Wyoming is a different animal.

Phoenix Media in Cheyenne was formed in July 2014. The $45,000 in donations to Robinson’s Citizens Against Taxation PAC from the unidentified Phoenix Media began in August 2014 and ended in October 2014.  

The Wyoming Phoenix Media’s business principal, mailing and registered agent are all listed as Wyomingregisteredagent.com, Inc.  It seems in Wyoming, the level of anonymity and untraceability for LLCs is such that you don’t even have to identify an actual human being with a company—you can use a website.

Phoenix Media LLC in Wyoming shares its address, 1621 Central Avenue, with 249 other LLCs.  Another 250 LLCs are listed next door, at 1620 Central Avenue in Cheyenne. Scores of these firms also list Wyomingregisteredagent.com, Inc. as their registered agent, just as Phoenix Media does. I wondered if I had found a cottage industry of untraceable LLCs—are these other companies donating to PACs as well?

Maybe the Wyoming Phoenix is the one who donated to Robinson’s PAC, maybe it isn’t. The point is, we shouldn’t be wondering who from out of state is pumping thousands of dollars into our school board races. With numerous PACs supervised by Robinson, continuously being created and disbanded, and hundreds of thousands of dollars passing through these entities, it’s too late for Robinson to don the cloak of transparency as a candidate—that ship has sailed. The corruption of nonpartisan school board races by Robinson-assisted dark money ought to disqualify him as a candidate for school board.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Pat Neal Venice project encounters opposition - 2000 signatures

Opposition grows to Pat Neal's rural Venice project

A Neal Communities development of 263 homes, The Woods of Venice, is proposed for a 151-acre annexed site at Jackson and Borders Roads. (1.30.2014)(Staff Photo by Elaine Litherland)
Published: Monday, April 20, 2015 at 5:02 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 20, 2015 at 5:02 p.m.
VENICE - Environmentalists, animal activists and nearby residents are vehemently opposed to another Pat Neal development in North Venice.



The Venice Planning Commission will meet at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at Venice City Hall, 401 W. Venice Ave. W., Venice. See meeting details at www.venicegov.com.
They plan to make their case Tuesday afternoon when the Planning Commission considers Neal Communities' The Woods at Venice, a 263-home development on 151 acres off North Jackson Road between Laurel and Border roads.
Opponents collected 2,000 signatures opposed to the Neal project near the Myakka River. They cited the prevalence of wildlife, recurring flooding and the inability of roads to handle more traffic as reasons why the density should remain at 31 houses instead of 263.
The Wildlife Center of Venice, Friends of Pinebrook, Venice Area Audubon Society and Venice Area Citizens for Responsible Development are among those opposing the developer's plan. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Group focuses on corruption, conflicts of interest statewide

Concerned Citizens group focuses on public corruption

Ben Wilcox, left, addresses the Concerned Citizens group while Allan Feifer, right, and Gail RiegelmPhoto available for purchase
Ben Wilcox, left, addresses the Concerned Citizens group while Allan Feifer, right, and Gail Riegelmayer listen.
David Adlerstein
Published: Wednesday, April 8, 2015 at 01:33 PM.
The research director of a leading Florida government watchdog organization told members of the Concerned Citizens of Franklin County organization last month that it is important to focus on policy issues, and not individuals, if they are to succeed in an effort to rid their government of corrupt practices.
“Corruption doesn’t wear a party label, and all the work we have done has been focused on policy and not on individuals and different officeholders,” Ben Wilcox, research director of Integrity Florida, told about two dozen members of the Concerned Citizens at a March 28 town hall meeting in the Eastpoint firehouse.
“Stay focused on the policy that’s allowing the behavior the that your citizens don’t want,” he said. “If people see what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to get a person out of office and get them defeated at the next election, it’s going to be seen as political.”
Integrity Florida is a three-year old nonpartisan, nonprofit research institute and government watchdog whose mission is to promote integrity in government and expose public corruption.
Allan Feifer, the Concerned Citizens president, chaired the town hall, and before introducing the guest speaker, he, and board members Ken Osborne and Gail Riegelmayer outlined the history of the organization. Osborne said it had its roots in the 1986 federal case, when the county’s African American community sought to create single-member districts. The group was reconstituted about 12 years ago, and among its causes has been as a tax watchdog and advocate for government accountability, particularly on a county level, as well as an active supporter for countywide voting.
In his presentation, Wilcox said he helped start the Integrity Florida, in Feb. 2012, and that he and the group’s cofounder and executive director, Dan Krassner, had spoken with former Florida governor Ruben Askew for two hours a few years ago to gain insight into their task.
“A public office is a public trust,” Wilcox said he told the men. “Those words are the most profound words I’ve ever heard.

Damaged Goods

Damaged Goods

To ask Commissioner Christine Robinson to resign from either her County Commission seat or her paid employment by the Argus Foundation is to ignore that her brazen assault on ethical standards has damaged beyond repair her ability to represent the people of Sarasota County to the exclusion of all other interests, including her own. For even if she should resign her well-paying Argus employment (not likely), but retain her Board seat, it cannot be expected that should could thereafter disassociate herself from the Foundation’s lobbying agenda. Only her resignation from public office will satisfy the need for objectivity on the Board.

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh sanitized Ms Robinson’s dual role as “not illegal.” At this point the public is entitled to a forthright, direct answer from him to these questions: Is her conduct a conflict of interest? Is it an ethics violation? By the same token, the other four county lawmakers should be asked to break their deafening silence and provide answers to the same questions. The public that elected them is entitled to know where they stand.

Frank Brenner

Sarasota County Atty Stephen DeMarsh ducking a reporter's questions
Video Link

Monday, April 13, 2015

Letter to the Editor: Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather

It is stunning that Commissioner Christine Robinson expected to get away unscathed with her brazen affront to the basic demands of good government. That she chose to overlook the obvious conflict between her Commission seat and her paid job as executive-director of the Argus Foundation lobby demonstrates her to be lacking a moral compass and, thus, not to be trusted to further serve on the County Commission. 
Indeed, when called out on April 1st at a public protest by sign-wielding critics, numerous speakers at the Commission’s open meeting and 600+ petition signers offended by her conduct, she “shrugged off” her critics and declared they were not really protesting her conflict, but, rather, her “growth stance.” 
Yes, that is stunning. What is more disturbing, however, is the fact that all of the other four commissioners have by silence blessed Commissioner Robinson’s conflict. Not one of them has had the gumption to declare her dual role to be illegal (which, I submit, it is) but, in any event, in the final analysis, to be unquestionably wrong. They are apparently content to give the Argus Foundation a seat at the Commission table. For shame! Who do the Gang of Five represent? What do you think?

Frank Brenner
Sarasota, FL

To the Editor: "Novel Transparency"

To the Editor:

At a time when income inequality is warping public policy across America, Sarasota County stands in the vanguard of those who coddle elitism and call it democracy.

In “Affluence and Influence, Economic Inequality and Political Power in America,” Martin Gilens tracks a subversive national trend:

". . . American citizens are vastly unequal in their influence over policy making, and that inequality is growing. In most circumstances, affluent Americans exert substantial influence over the policies adopted by the federal government, and less well off Americans exert virtually none.”

For 30 years The Argus Foundation pitched itself as a savvy insiders’ group that knew what was best for Sarasota. Its former executive director Kerry Kirschner spearheaded many lobbying campaigns to change policies for the sake of builders, developers and allied interests.

With the replacement of Kirschner by County Commissioner Christine Robinson, Argus has boldly gone where few sane Americans have dared to go before: It now retains on salary a sitting public official charged with protecting the public interest on issues such as traffic, impact fees, land use, and more.

Argus is a game changer. Why lobby for your private interests via old fashioned democratic processes when you can just hire the officials whose votes you need? A novel form of transparency indeed!

Thomas Matrullo
Sarasota, FL

Want to send a Letter to the Editor? Here's how.

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

To the Editor: An Assault on Ethics

To the Editor:

The Leroy Collins Institute is a non-partisan, state-wide policy organization which, it asserts, “studies and promotes creative solutions to key public issues facing the people of Florida.” In 2012, reporting on “The Ethics Policy Gap,” the Institute revealed that Florida has long been ethically challenged; that its state-level ethics laws and enforcement are essentially frozen in time; that “Florida has a well-documented problem of public corruption at every level of government; and that the “State Integrity Investigation’s Corruptions Risk Report Card gave Florida an overall C–minus grade for corruption risk and an F grade for ethics enforcement agencies.”

Fast forward to 2015. Has anything changed this dismal picture? Christine Robinson, a sitting Sarasota County Commissioner, has accepted simultaneous employment as the paid executive-director of the Argus Foundation, which makes no secret of its mission as a lobbying force. Indeed, its website proudly proclaims that “Membership represents major economic, business and professional interests in the community. . . . we are in a position to advise and assist public officials in decisionsthat will affect the life-style, environment, and economic well-being of our area now and in the future.”

There has been a public outcry against this dual role of legislator/lobbyist, a blatant, thumb-in-the-eye assault on morality in government. More than 700 citizens have petitioned Ms. Robinson to resign one of her positions. Numbers of individuals complained of her dual role at a public session of the County Commission and demanded she resign one of her two positions, asserting she cannot in good faith simultaneously serve two masters. She has shrugged off the outcry.

What constitutes a conflict of interest? No need to speculate. On a state-wide basis, Fla. Stats, section 112.312 (8), under the chapter titled “Code Of Ethics for Pubic Officers,” provides that “conflict of interest means a situation in which regard for a private interest tends to lead to disregard of a pubic duty or interest.” On a county-wide basis, Section 2-121 of the Sarasota County Code of Ordinances, titled “Declaration of Policy,” declares that “No officer . . . of Sarasota County . . . shall have any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect . . . which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest.”

Section 2-123 (2) follows up with this unequivocal prohibition: “Every public official of Sarasota County . . . shall adhere to the following standards of ethical conduct while holding office: he shall hold no other employment . . . which is incompatible with the performance of his pubic duty.” So, does Ms. Robinson’s occupation of a seat on the County Commission and her simultaneous paid employment as the head of an influential lobby ”tend” to lead to a “disregard of her public duty?” Is her paid position with Argus a “financial interest” in “substantial conflict” with her obligation to act exclusively in the “public interest?” Is her employment by Argus “incompatible with the performance of her public duty?”

I submit that to ask these questions is to answer them. For the conflict of interest of which I complain is not questionable or borderline. It is brazen, breathtaking. To ensure that Florida’s poor reputation for ethics in government continues undiminished, the County Attorney has opined that Ms. Robinson’s conduct is not “illegal” [a conclusion both questionable and irrelevant on the issue of what is “ethical”]. Moreover, all the other four commissioners blessed Ms Robinson’s dual role. Not one of them had the spine to protest the clear ethical violation.

Many have demanded that Ms. Robinson resign one or the other of her two positions. I do not offer her that much slack. I suggest that her assault on ethics in government requires that she resign her commission seat. By her betrayal of the public trust she has forfeited the public confidence that would be necessary for her to be effective going forward.

                                                                                Frank Brenner
                                                                                Sarasota County

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Antunes on Robinson and Argus

Cathy Antunes - adapted from The Detail:

A County Commissioner Cannot Serve Two Masters

In February it became official: Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson is now Executive Director of the Argus Foundation. This relationship between a sitting County Commissioner and Sarasota County’s leading business lobbying organization demonstrates a new low for ethics in Sarasota County government. Sarasota residents can sign a petition against this gross violation of the public trust:
Some Background
The Argus Foundation was established in 1985 as a “liaison between City County State and Federal governments to involve itself with vital matters that have an impact on the quality of life in Southwest Florida”. Members include “presidents and CEOs of some of Sarasota’s largest and most well-established corporations”. The Argus Foundation “actively monitors the activities of the various governmental bodies and comments on relevant proposals”. The Argus website archives describe “170 active members made up of a broad cross section of the business and professional community representing more than 50 different industries. In addition to ensuring that our elected officials perform their duties efficiently, and because it does not endorse political candidates, the Argus Foundation is also in an impartial position to advise and assist public officials in decisions that affect the lifestyle, environment, and economic well-being of our area.”
Argus has lobbied the County and City Commissions on many local issues. One example is SRQ airport governance. Argus successfully lobbied for SRQ airport board members to be appointed rather than elected. Among the reasons Argus offered for the superiority of appointed rather than elected airport board members were “unqualified and misguided people can find their way on boards more easily on an elected basis”. and “appointed boards are better screened.” In addition, Argus proferred “It is generally the case that appointees tend to be among the very best people in a community, with substantial experience and credentials, and whose talents, disposition and orientation is known. A final point, is that most appointee systems provide for removing appointees who don’t work out.”
In 2012 appointed SRQ airport board member and former GOP chair Bob Waechter was arrested for identity theft. Store video showed Waechter stealing the identity of Lourdes Ramirez, a Republican candidate he did not support. Waechter purchased a debit card in her name and later used it to donate to Democrats, setting Ramirez up for changes of being a RINO (Republican In Name Only). After his arrest, no process was triggered to remove Mr. Waechter from the airport board. He resigned only after community advocates questioned the County Commission about the propriety of Waechter’s continued service while awaiting prosecution.
The current appointed SRQ Airport Authority Board includes Medallion Homes developer Carlos Beruff. During his tenure as Chair of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFMD), Beruff advocated for fast-tracking developer permits to destroy wetlands. Beruff also wanted SWFMD to take over federal wetlands permitting as well, citing the need for SWFMD to act as a “service industry.” Beruff is currently suing Manatee County for denying policy changes he needed to develop Long Bart Point, at Cortez fishing village.
Developer Henry Rodriguez is a former SRQ Airport Authority Board appointee. A jury just found Mr. Rodriguez and Randy Benderson “used backroom political deals with elected officials and conspired in secret meetings to double-cross their one-time partner (Hugh Culverhouse) on a major land deal.” (Herald Tribune, March 16, 2015) The jury awarded Culverhouse $20 million in damages.
Do these SRQ Airport Authority appointees represent “the very best people in a community, with substantial experience and credentials” as the Argus Foundation argued? Or has the SRQ Airport Authority Board become a club for political cronies?
The 170 members and 50 companies represented by Argus certainly have a right to lobby government. But their interests don’t necessarily align with the public interest. Argus members obviously should not be able to hire a public official as their Executive Director, Commissioner Robinson, a County Commissioner who votes on the issues they seek to influence. Robinson’s dual role is an efficient way for Argus members to advance their interests, and a gross betrayal of the public trust. Sarasota’s current status as an ethical backwater is unacceptable. Time to demand integrity in County government. 

Sign the Petition

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A site that makes so much sense it hurts

A common sense approach to explaining the very strong reasons why suburban expansion is costly in every way, and will undermine our future:

The Cost of Sprawl

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Letter to the Editor: Argus credibility at risk

From the 4.9.2015 Herald-Tribune regarding The Argus Foundation . . . 

Argus credibility at risk

Argus, while seen as a conservative-cause booster, has generally been regarded as respectable. Their hiring of Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson is tainting Argus' independence and making it a party to what is, in common-sense language, a conflict of interest.
Look at Argus' goals/priorities: governance, education, economic development, environment and land planning, health and human services, transportation.
These are clearly the responsibility of the County Commission and other governmental agencies.
When Argus has a point of view, and its employee, Christine Robinson, is a county commissioner, how can she ignore Argus' views and serve the public independently? She can't.
Argus should preserve its reputation and ask Mrs. Robinson to resign from Argus or the commission, and, if wished, return to Argus after her term in office ends.
Edwin W. Martin

Monday, April 6, 2015

Letter to the Editor of the Herald Tribune

From today's Herald Tribune Letters to the Editor:

Robinson 'conflict'

On Wednesday, more than 100 people from all walks of life rallied and took their protest into the Sarasota County Commission chambers. Many of them addressed the board and asked Christine Robinson to resign from either her commission seat, or from her job as executive director of the influential lobbying organization, The Argus Foundation​.

They argued compellingly why Robinson's holding both positions simultaneously is unacceptable. More than one speaker emphasized that a true understanding of "conflict of interest" includes even the appearance of a situation involving compromised or conflicted loyalties.

We learn about the substantial local political and policy influence of the Argus Foundation in the frequent coverage it receives in this newspaper and other media outlets. It is simply not credible to argue that Commissioner Robinson's employment by the Argus Foundation does not convey the appearance of a conflict of interest!

Robinson is an attorney, and she knows better. Her failure to acknowledge the validity of this serious "perception" problem demonstrates contempt for her employers, the county taxpayers. County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh, whose overly narrow legal opinion saying this arrangement is OK is cited by Robinson as her primary defense, apparently holds the same contempt.

That Argus would jeopardize its "good name" by establishing this brazen arrangement demonstrates shocking arrogance or extremely poor judgment.

Jason Boehk

Sign the Petition

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Media relating to the April 1 Integrity Rally

Re: Protesters take aim at Christine Robinson

Postby Quipper » Wed Apr 01, 2015 7:42 pm

It was a fantastic rally, and the speakers at Open to the Public did a superb job. The message was delivered not only to Robinson, but to the other four commissioners as well....they who sit like the three hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil monkeys. Why are they silent? One speaker told them it is not as though they are musketeers, having to circle around one of "theirs". So when will they take a position?
The time has come...we will not accept their corrupt behavior any longer.

Citizens for Sarasota County

Josh Salman live tweeted the Rally and Protest:

via Herald Trib:

Protesters take aim at Robinson

Developer Hugh Culverhouse speaks out at the Sarasota County Commissioners meeting on Wednesday
Published: Wednesday, April 1, 2015 at 4:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 1, 2015 at 4:49 p.m.
SARASOTA - They symbolically wore two hats, sported political gear from both major parties and spent their warm lunch break to protest what they dubbed a flagrant conflict of interest by a Sarasota County commissioner.
More than 100 area residents picketed the Sarasota County Administration Center for a rally Wednesday urging Commissioner Christine Robinson to resign from either her elected seat or the job she accepted in November to lead the Argus Foundation, a pro-business and development group.
Calling themselves Integrity 2016, the assembly waived colorful signs that read “You are Conflicted,” “Robinson Resign” and “Do the Right Thing,” as they solicited honks from motorists along the busy downtown corridor. 

Suncoast WWSB 7 ABC

SARASOTA COUNTY, FLA   Dozens of Sarasota County taxpayers are calling for the resignation of Commissioner Christine Robinson. They call it a serious conflict of interest that she's accepted a side-job as Executive Director of a pro-business group called the Argus Foundation.

WSLR 96.5 LPFM Community Radio, 'Jumping Mullet' Evening News Report 

Statements and analysis from Andre Mele, Cathy Antunes and Dan Lobeck.

>>>>>>Official County Commission Meeting Video<<<<<<

Video clips from Rally:


>>>>WWSB Suncoast 7 Follow-Up Video<<<<

Sarasota County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh declining to answer a reporter's questions.

SARASOTA COUNTY, FLA   One day after one of the largest rally of it's kind in years in Sarasota County, protesters remain clear that Commissioner Christine Robinson shouldn't also be Executive Director of the Argus Foundation.  
"It's illegal. You can't be a lobbyist as well as a public official at the same time. That's what she's doing, so we're saying step down from one or the other, you choose," said one of the rally organizers, Cathy Antunes.
But Commissioner Robinson says that's not going to happen. 
"I don't have any plans to resign. What I do outside my commission work only helps my commission work," Robinson said.

The Republican Party of Sarasota (RPOS) is proud to have Commissioner Christine Robinson as a County Commissioner. She has served Sarasota well and we find no conflict between her role as Commissioner and as Argus ED. She has been one of the most Conservative County Commissioners Sarasota County has ever had and is to be thanked for her service. She has worked to reduce the burden on tax payers by holding spending and refusing to raise taxes.

Sign the Petition