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:
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.