The Bradenton Times
Democracy is a high-maintenance animal, and it likes to be touched. In recent weeks, Manatee County activists have demonstrated just how crucial the role of the citizen truly is when it comes to our democratic process.
For several years, Carlos Beruff has been intent on developing an ultra-ambitious project on a huge parcel of land that sits on the Sarasota Bay in southwest Manatee County. First called Long Bar Pointe and now Aqua by the Bay, the proposed development is unlike anything Manatee County has ever seen.
The only problem is that Aqua by the Bay, as proposed, does not comply with a number of Manatee County's rules on coastal development (more on that here). Normally, however, that might not be such a problem for Mr. Beruff, who has invested a lot of money in making sure that he wields considerable influence over the board, which makes all of the important land use decisions for our community.
Beruff, through a litany of financial entities from which he makes political contributions that legally skirt campaign finance limits meant to limit the influence of any single individual, has been the primary benefactor of several board members. The Miami native was the driving force behind Commission Chair Betsy Benac's 2012 campaign and added another friendly face in 2016 when he helped get Stephen Jonsson, a banker with whom he'd had many dealings, get elected to the BOCC.
Beruff looked poised to add another pro-development vote to the board in that election, until former state rep. Ron Reagan's Beruff-sponsored campaign began to implode, perhaps at least partly because of an exposé in this publication that demonstrated the numerous conflicts of interest that the support would create, were Reagan to be elected. While that investment didnðt pay off, Beruff nonetheless enjoys a pretty solid relationship with a decidedly pro-development board, most of which is flush with developer money from Beruff and elsewhere. He even hired Commissioner Carol Whitmore's son-in-law, an attorney, to work on Aqua by the Bay. While the ethics commission ruled that Whitmore had no conflict of interest, one certainly has to wonder whether gaining another vote was on Beruff's mind when he made the decision.
Beruff's investments often pay handsome dividends. Consider this, you own a piece of land that our county's rules say can be developed one way. Mr. Beruff buys that property and submits a wildly different plan that fails to comply with said rules. Through his influence, he's able to get a development plan approved with much more favorable allowances. Usually it's greater density, which translates to more homes on the same amount of land, or, as is the case with Aqua by the Bay, where he is seeking much greater height than is allowed and a complete reconfiguration of the natural water features to the detriment of the local environment.
Influence with other entities, such as our local water management board, which he once chaired, make it even easier for Beruff to prevail. Once he does, that land he acquired is worth far more than it was when he purchased it, allowing him to make a profit far greater than the cost of attaining that influence even before ground is broken on the first home.
Given how much influence he has at his disposal, Beruff is probably going to be able to get the rules bent and the regulations modified in his favor, provided the decision isn't under a microscope. That's where the people come in. Manatee County happens to be blessed with an inordinate amount of retired experts when it comes to most environmental issues. I guess it shouldn't be a surprise, as so many people like to retire to our coastal community anyway, and if you've spent your life working on coastal issues it suggests you've got a passion for the subject. If so, where better to spend your golden years than one of the most ecologically-splendid coastal regions in the world?
That passion has been Beruff's Achilles' heel, driving a number of such retirees to point it at this project and fight the county to enforce its own rules, even if it means the developer does not get his way. The fight's not over yet, but they've begun to back the developer to the ropes. That's not really the way it should work of course, or at least they shouldn't have to work this hard. Ideally, county commissioners would do their jobs and county staff would do theirs and the brain trust in our retirement community could spend their days enjoying recreation amid that beautiful environment rather than fighting tooth and nail to protect it.
But while Beruff's influence remains obvious and activists, no matter how impressively credentialed, have to wage a disparagingly uphill (not to mention expensive) battle just to ensure that our government and elected officials do what they should, their success demonstrates just how powerful the will of the people still is, despite the laments of so many disenfranchised citizens who say that big money and special interests have rendered democracy all but dead.
Elected officials serve at our pleasure, and while they may fear the backlash of politically-powerful players who show little mercy and demand complete loyalty for their financial support, they ultimately fear voter backlash more -- provided the citizens make it known that they are paying attention. I've always answered the argument that big-money is the greatest threat to our electoral process with the counter-argument that apathy is much more dangerous because that's what empowers the money in the first place.
Bombarding voters with slick ads and cheap-shot attack campaigns only works when the voters aren't paying much attention. If the citizens know that one of their elected officials is a stooge for developers or some other special interest, all the ads to the contrary arenðt going to change that impression. If they don't know who their elected officials even are, however, and have no idea which way they voted on key issues but still show up to vote as many of them do, that money can go a long, long way.
In the end, it's simply a matter of convincing elected officials that we are more dangerous than those who sign the big campaign checks. When they believe that, they typically vote the right way, and the best way to ensure that's the case is to make your voice heard by showing up at meetings, pestering your representatives with calls and emails, and letting them know that their continued service requires their representation of the will of the people.
If you're reading this column, chances are pretty good that you fall into the first category and have probably been one of those voices reminding commissioners who they really work for. If so, I salute you. Keep fighting the good fight and, more importantly, keep spreading the news to your neighbors, recruiting more informed voices so that the will of the people will continue to prevail.