Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Seidman: Citizens speak on Siesta Promenade ... but nobody’s listening

With approval of the controversial project, once again residents’ concerns take a back seat to development interests.

Carrie Seidman, Herald Tribune

Before last week’s County Commission hearing on the proposed Siesta Promenade project by Benderson Development, Sura Kochman was feeling hopeful.

For almost two years, using the tools she’d developed over a decade of chairing a New Jersey planning board, she’d spent “almost every waking moment” gathering research, talking with officials, building alliances and working to disseminate information about the mixed-use plan for the 24-acre site near U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road, neighboring her Pine Shores home. Now it was time for Kochman — and dozens of other residents who also saw the mix of hotel, retail and residential development as incompatible with the surrounding area — to share their concerns before commissioners took a vote last Wednesday.

“I truly felt in my gut that, with the mountain of evidence we had gathered and the testimony of eight organizations representing thousands of people’s voices, that the commissioners would listen and understand the issues regarding this very unique area,” said Kochman, who formed the Pine Shores Neighborhood Alliance to advocate for reducing the project’s height and density.

Siesta Promenade site at US 41 and Stickney Point
Others, aware of the commission’s history of siding with developers, were more cynical. A chorus of voices chimed in on the group’s Facebook page: Don’t even bother going. You’re wasting your time. They’re going to approve it anyway.

Kochman responded with all the fervor and optimism of a high school cheerleader.

“I said, ’Don’t give up, you have to make your voices heard, give it your all!” she recalled earlier this week, sounding a little defeatist herself after commissioners approved the project. “But they were proven right. So maybe people shouldn’t bother anymore. Because they hear our voices, but they don’t hear us.”

Commissioners listened to almost 90 residents, just eight of whom spoke in favor of the project. Speakers said it was incompatible with a comprehensive plan that calls for “walkability” and reducing negative impacts on surrounding residential areas. They pointed to conflicts with elements of the newly-passed uniform development code. They noted flaws in the traffic studies that were conducted and expressed fears of a gridlock that would be not only a hassle but a danger and, in the event of an emergency, potentially life-threatening.

But after nearly five hours of testimony, the vote (4-1) was swift and unequivocal. Benderson’s request for a rezone and a hotel exception was granted, without modification.

“The fact that they totally ignored us and didn’t make one change, it’s very discouraging, very disheartening,” said Kochman, who was born and raised in Sarasota. “The whole process is just so disingenuous. Did they already know when they walked into the meeting that the whole thing was for naught? Was the fix in?”

When I asked her exactly what she meant by that, Kochman didn’t pull any punches.

Sarasota County Commission: In bed with the developers?

“Any rational person would have seen that this application should not have been approved in its proposed form,” she said dismissively. “So the only answer, I assume, would be to go to and see where the (commissioners’) campaign contributions have come from. You hate to think our commissioners can be bought off, but there’s no other way to look at this. That’s the only reason I can think of.”

Kochman has a lot of company. In my year-long tenure as a columnist, this is the refrain I hear more than any other: Local government is in bed with the developers and it’s ruining Sarasota.

I’ve heard it from the grassroots advocacy group STOP, fighting to change the “administrative approval” process that grants the city the right to green light downtown development projects without citizen input.

I’ve heard it from people living on S. Palm Avenue , who formed SHOUT over concerns about safety hazards from construction debris and practices on new developments and who have encountered resistance in trying to get the city to take proactive measures to protect residents, their pets and their vehicles.

I’ve heard it from homeowners in Venice, objecting to the placement of a new hospital in an area the comprehensive plan intended to be residential, and one that lacks the infrastructural capacity to handle increased traffic and emergency vehicles.

I’ve heard it from those fighting the city’s plan to lease the pavilion on Lido Key to private investors for development of a restaurant and additional amenities that would decidedly change the ambiance of Sarasota’s most laid-back, family friendly public beach.

And I’ve heard it from “Reopen Beach Road” advocates who objected to the county’s ceding a once-public thoroughfare to private property owners, allowing for increased density on their buildable land. (Even though an amendment calling on the county to regain ownership and reopen the road passed in the recent midterms, it is already facing pushback — leading to the conclusion that even if you win, you’re not done fighting.)

Almost daily I get mail from readers complaining about everything from traffic congestion to red tide, flooding to impassable sidewalks — all of which they blame on uncontrolled development and injudicious planning. They write to inform me of meetings and public forums and petitions and ask if I can help rally the troops. Many say they are reluctant crusaders.

“I moved here to retire, I didn’t plan on becoming an activist,” one told me recently. “But I can’t stand to see what they are doing to this paradise.”

But when the fattest wallet can buy the loudest voice, even a substantial citizen chorus is like background noise. And how long will residents continue to protest if they know it’s pointless?

“I guess that’s why so many people in Sarasota just live in their little bubbles,” Kochman said. “Go out to dinner, see a show, come back home and don’t get involved. It’s discouraging people from wanting to get involved because they think ... to what end? There is a total disregard here for the voices of the citizenry.”

For more on the projects Seidman alludes to, see This Could Be You.

Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at 941-361-4834 or Follow her on Twitter @CarrieSeidman and Facebook at

Thursday, December 13, 2018

North Port seeks action on Red Tide from Ron DeSantis

On Tuesday, Dec. 11, North Port became the first municipality in Florida to proactively seek to bring back a stormwater rule that, if enacted, could significantly reduce nutrients returning to our estuaries and bays -- and therefore potentially reducing the strength of Red Tide Events.

The City Commission adopted Resolution 2018-R-34 which asks Governor DeSantis to take action upon taking office to bring an unused stormwater rule back to go through a public hearing and vetting process and then adoption by the Legislature.

The Resolution was drawn up for the Board's consideration by Hands Along the Water, an advocacy group, and by Stephen Suau, a Sarasota County stormwater expert.

Steve Suau speaking in North Port
The Board adopted the Resolution Tuesday with just one word change -- to clarify that the request is timed to seek Gov. DeSantis's action when he assumes office. In addition to sending the Resolution to the new Governor, the City unanimously voted to forward to the Florida League of Cities, as well as to the Boards of Sarasota and Charlotte Counties, and to each city within those counties.

A powerpoint presented by Suau during the November 27 North Port meeting was included along with the Resolution in the agenda item. It can be seen here, and presents the basic argument as to why the state's Dept of Environmental Protection should bring the stormwater rule off the shelf in order to reduce nitrogen running into coastal waters. The rule was set to go into effect in 2010, but was shelved by Rick Scott as soon as he took office.

That meeting was also when members of Hands Along the Water presented their case for the need to take action against the causes of Red Tide, which has been stronger and more broadly lethal than seen here previously.

Essentially the new rule will use new technology to double the amount of nutrients removed from stormwater ponds. The state has been presuming that 80% - 85% of nitrogen from fertilizers is taken out of stormwater, when in fact under existing methods, it's only 40%-45%.

The proponents of this action say the causes of Red Tide are multiple, and many additional actions will be needed, but this is one that state scientists had researched and studied for 10 years. See the timeline below for more background

Perhaps the time for advanced stormwater treatment has finally arrived.


1977 to present: (past 50 years): Red tide abundance and duration increases
1997 to present: Nitrogen concentrations in Sarasota and Lemon Bays increase
1995 to 2010: Current regulations presume 80% effectiveness of pond reduction, but
studies revealed that stormwater ponds reduce nitrogen runoff by only 40-45% effective
2000 to 2010: Florida conducts 10-year research and monitoring,
drafts Stormwater Rule and Advanced Stormwater Treatment Design Manual.  
2011: Incoming administration cancels Stormwater Rule and Manual
2018: Proven Stormwater Harvesting and Recycling Technology exists now
  • Quantifiable
  • Can be used within existing pond footprint
  • Can produce revenue 

2019 and Beyond: Hit the Restart Button: Resolve to ask the new DeSantis administration to reinitiate the Advanced Stormwater Treatment Rule public hearing and adoption process.

Members of Hands Along the Water

An email regarding Critical Area Planning and the Celery Fields

To the Board of Sarasota County Commissioners:
A Critical Area Plan is a technical tool -- an innovation which I understand was first developed by Sarasota County planning years ago. According to one of the planners who implemented CAPs over many years, the purpose of establishing a boundary for a CAP project is to insure that all the important changes a proposed development will bring to a specific area are addressed.
As a tool for gauging compatibility, clearly the CAP boundary is not intended to encompass just the area of the project. That would not make sense.
When the Fruitville Initiative was being designed, the boundaries of the CAP benefited from public input, solicited by the County.
On Sept. 12, 2018, the Board of Sarasota County Commissioners wisely decided that it was time to revisit the Critical Area Plan (CAP) for the Quad parcels near the Celery Fields in light of the current context and realities.

This should provide a long overdue opportunity to envision what is possible at the Celery Fields area, rather than to adapt new elements of the area to outdated planning decisions.

Before starting the CAP process, the BCC will first need to approve the boundaries (i.e. aerial extent) and criteria (plan tasks) at a public hearing.
I can personally attest that when Restaurant Depot’s proposal came before this board two years ago, the critical area plan coincided with the boundaries of its parcel. That is to say: the impacts of the giant warehouse upon the Celery Fields and other surrounding parcels were explicitly ignored by the very planning tool that is supposed to take those impacts into account.

In advance of setting CAP boundaries and criteria for the Celery Fields, it is appropriate for staff to proactively conduct public meeting(s) to solicit public input on the boundaries and criteria, much as was done at this stage of the Fruitville Initiative.
As the CAP is a term of art, for the benefit of clear communication especially when there is large community interest, it would be helpful for the public record for the Board to clearly define what it intends with the use of the term “Critical Area Plan,” to explicitly explain what its boundaries are, how those boundaries have been determined, with what public input, along with the reasons why and the identity of whose decisions these are.
Thank you.

Thomas Matrullo

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Making things worse: Siesta Key and other communities



On the impact of Benderson's Siesta Promenade on its surrounding area,Gene Kusekoski, president of the Siesta Key Association, says this:
"The problem with the current Siesta Promenade proposal is EXACTLY about the “What" and the "Where." If this project was being proposed by the most universally beloved organization on earth, it would still be facing strong opposition because it is quite simply the wrong size and scale for that location.

"Adjacent neighbors who used to have landscaped single-story mobile homes across the street would now be looking up at 40- to 85-foot buildings. Their neighborhood streets that are barely wide enough for two cars to pass would be flooded with hundreds of cars going in and out of the development."

Sura Kochman has been coordinating community concerns about Siesta Promenade. In the Herald Tribune she writes:

Sarasota County staff has recommended approval of this application, citing numerous Comprehensive Plan policies that the project meets; however, one policy is blatantly missing:
Future Land Use 2.3.7: “In established residential areas, incompatible land uses shall be discouraged if traffic is generated on abutting local streets in amounts that would substantially and adversely affect traffic flow, traffic control and public safety.”
This land-use policy should have greater weight, as it affects existing homeowners. HT Guest Column 12.8.18.


The planner who developed the concept of the Critical Area Plan for Sarasota County says the county is failing to properly apply it to this project. Brian Lichterman, who formerly worked for County Planning and now owns Vision Planning and Design in Sarasota, stated last year to the Board:
The purpose of establishing a boundary for a CAP project, Lichterman explained, is to insure that all the important changes a proposed development will bring to a specific area are addressed.
The boundary, he added, is not intended to encompass just the area of the project. Yet, that is exactly what Benderson has sought in its application for a CAP for Siesta Promenade, Lichterman told the County Commission . . . Sarasota News Leader

Vincent Paul Staley writes to the Herald Tribune:
Siesta Promenade project is in the wrong place. 
Our elected commissioners should study what happened to Mexico Beach, Florida, during Hurricane Michael. A tropical depression became a monster in such a short period of time that many people didn’t think they needed to evacuate until it was too late.
Our barrier islands face the same threat. The thousands of visitors and residents on the islands on any given day represent an evacuation nightmare. One accident blocking a bridge egress would be catastrophic. 
The Benderson people have the opportunity to create a lasting legacy in our community by not proceeding with their current plans. This project could create a snafu of epic proportions in the case of an extreme weather event. 
In addition to the evacuation of the Siesta Key population, the Siesta Promenade development would have to evacuate its employees, residents and hotel guests, and they will be part and parcel of creating a bottleneck.

Illogical, crudely incompatible Sarasota Planning is not only happening at the Siesta Promenade. It's also clearly in evidence with other developer initiatives, including the Celery Fields:

Those involved with fighting industry at the Celery Fields saw the same patterns: When Restaurant Depot was being considered for approval, planners treated the boundaries of its parcel as the boundaries of the Critical Area Plan. This allowed the county to ignore impacts on surroundings, just as it is apparently willing to do with Siesta Promenade.

The county is now preparing to re-open the Critical Area Plan at the Celery Fields -- which could allow for a community-based overview of the entire area. What will it do with this opportunity?

Robert Waechter owns warehouses next to public lands at the Celery Fields. He made the argument that so many large trucks already use the roads near the birding preserve that there's no use in trying to buffer it. He advised the county to allow more industry and more trucks there -- it's already so dangerous that it might as well be worse -- despite thousands of residents and school children who use Palmer Boulevard as their prime road.

The County keeps saying that industry is appropriate at the Celery Fields because it is already there (although it's mostly set back and not on Palmer Blvd.). Why would the county cite existing industry as a reason for more of same at the Celery Fields, but then turn around and approve Siesta Promenade, which as Mr. Kusekoski says will be a radical shock to a settled area that is full of people who have lived there for decades?

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Include the public at the very start of this process

Brief update from Fresh Start:

We last wrote to the Board requesting that citizens be included when the Board reopens the Critical Area Plan for the Celery Fields:

Yesterday came this reply from Jane Grogg of Planning:
Good afternoon, 
The Board direction was for staff to bring back a scope of work for amendment to the Critical Area Plan by January. If they decide to move forward, staff would perform the analysis and hold associated public workshop(s) before returning to the Board with the draft amendments. The Board would then have the option to authorize the amendment process for hearings at the Planning Commission and Board. Since this is an existing CAP, the boundaries of the CAP is have already been adopted.
Thank you,

Given the active interest by our communities in the fate of this area, and given that the county has not begun to provide the necessary support for its continued safe and protected existence as a bird sanctuary, public recreation space, and natural habitat for wildlife, we believe that our communities and the public in general have earned the right to play a real part in decision making that will result from reopening the CAP.

One key element of reopening the CAP is in fact the opportunity to take a new look at its boundaries. 

As this goes forward, the CAP can be modified to allow more robust roads, and therefore allow for industry. Or, it can be modified in accord with the values and vision of the community. Which way will our Board and staff go?

Thank you for your commitment to the welfare of our neighborhoods.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Court hearing in Citizen suit against Sarasota County Tuesday Dec. 4

Citizens sued Sarasota County with respect to the Grand Lakes development. The court has scheduled an Administrative hearing for Tuesday Dec. 4, 9 a.m.:

The suit, David Anderson vs Sarasota County and Ibis Rd. Investors LLC, argues that the Board of Sarasota County Commissioners violated terms of its own Comprehensive Plan in approving Pat Neal's proposed 1,000-home development without including a commercial component. Background on the lawsuit here.

Pat Neal, developer of Grand Lakes

The Dec. 4 hearing details:

David Anderson vs Sarasota County and Ibis Rd. Investors LLC

Tuesday 9 a.m. Justice Center 2071 Ringling Blvd. (NW corner of Ringling Blvd and East Ave little doorway) 

Courtroom #2 6th floor Judge Ffolks

The hearing go two days, more or less.

At stake, in the county's own words, is a core principle of 2050: integrating uses to avoid sprawl:
"the provision for non-residential uses through the establishment of mixed use Village and Neighborhood Centers is central to the concept of Villages as an alternative to urban sprawl. … Without the non-residential uses in close proximity and integrated into the residential uses, the Villages resemble other suburban residential development typical of Sarasota County and other communities.”  (SNL 8.16.18)
The homeowners contend that if Pat Neal is allowed to proceed under the proposed changes to the rules, the development of Grand Lakes
will promote sprawl and encourage disjointed patchwork development—exactly the things the 2050 plan is meant to discourage.
 The county is ignoring its own rules, the citizens say. Future developments could take the County's approval in Pat Neal's case as precedent for coming large-scale developments:
. . . relaxation of the core 2050 principles would open the way for future, large-scale developments such as 12,000-unit Hi Hat Ranch to sprawl rather than conform to contained village templates that link residential and commercial use in a constructive and meaningful manner. (Press release of plaintiffs).
In essence, without public sector stewardship, the business models for single family development could very well lead to sprawl.


Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Can Florida Turn the Tide?

On Nov 27, 2018, stormwater engineer Steve Suau spoke to the North Port City Commission about strategies to combat Red Tide -- algae blooms responsible for the death of countless marine creatures, including many mammals, as well as airborne effects on people, and substantial economic damage to the tourist industry on the Gulf Coast.

Members of Hands Along the Water, a Florida advocacy group, spoke at the same meeting about what is now known about the causes and impacts of Red Tide. See the group's presentations here. Suau's talk is below.


1977 to present: (past 50 years): Red tide abundance and duration increases
1997 to present: Nitrogen concentrations in Sarasota and Lemon Bays increase
1995 to 2010: Current regulations presume 80% effectiveness of pond reduction, but
studies revealed that stormwater ponds reduce nitrogen runoff by only 40-45% effective
2000 to 2010: Florida conducts 10-year research and monitoring,
drafts Stormwater Rule and Advanced Stormwater Treatment Design Manual.  
2011: Incoming administration cancels Stormwater Rule and Manual
2018: Proven Stormwater Harvesting and Recycling Technology exists now
  • Quantifiable
  • Can be used within existing pond footprint
  • Can produce revenue 

2019 and Beyond: Hit the Restart Button: Resolve to ask the new DeSantis administration to reinitiate the Advanced Stormwater Treatment Rule public hearing and adoption process.

Red Tide on Siesta Beach, Sarasota, 2018 

Human Activity and Red Tide

Example of a stormwater harvesting program already operating in Venice, FL

For more on public concern, with presentations by members of Hands Along the Water, and how to write to Governor Elect Ron DeSantis, click here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Hands Along the Water to North Port: We can combat Red Tide

On Nov 27, 2018 at the North Port City Commission, members of Hands Along the Water, an environmental advocacy group, urged the Board to take a look at existing state research on the impact of nitrogen nutrients on Red Tide.

Despite many measures undertaken by local communities (e.g. closing septic tanks), nitrogen levels in coastal waters such as Sarasota and Lemon Bays have steadily been increasing:

What's more, clear evidence shows that stormwater ponds as currently managed do not achieve the 80% rate of nutrient reduction presumed by state regulations. The actual performance is closer to 40%-45%.

Beginning in 2000, the Dept. of Environmental Protection spent 10 years researching the issue and, after consulting experts statewide, had prepared in 2010 to put in place an Advanced Stormwater Harvesting and Recyling Plan. Then the new Rick Scott administration came into office, and swept all these plans aside.

With Hands Along the Water was Steve Suau, a stormwater engineer who has been working on the problem and how to best address it. Suau presented the facts and potential benefits of reviving the Advanced Stormwater Treatment option.

The group asked North Port Commissioners to consider adopting a Resolution that would ask Governor Elect Ron DeSantis to restart this effort to reduce nitrogen runoff. The effort would be neither costly nor difficult - in fact it could produce revenue, the group said. Here is a summary timeline:

1977 to present: (past 50 years): Red tide abundance and duration increases
1997 to present: Nitrogen concentrations in Sarasota and Lemon Bays increase
1995 to 2010: Current regulations presume 80% effectiveness of pond reduction, but
studies revealed that stormwater ponds reduce nitrogen runoff by only 40-45% effective
2000 to 2010: Florida conducts 10-year research and monitoring,
drafts Stormwater Rule and Advanced Stormwater Treatment Design Manual.  
2011: Incoming administration cancels Stormwater Rule and Manual
2018: Proven Stormwater Harvesting and Recycling Technology exists now
  • Quantifiable
  • Can be used within existing pond footprint
  • Can produce revenue 

2019 and Beyond: Hit the Restart Button: Resolve to ask the new DeSantis administration to reinitiate the Advanced Stormwater Treatment Rule public hearing and adoption process.

See Steve Suau's full presentation here.

Letter to Governor Elect Ron DeSantis.

Hands Along the Water speakers:

Samantha Gentrup

Nadine Baker

Brian Kelly

Joan San Lwin

Tim Ritchie

Edie Driest

More on this significant opportunity for to do someting about Red Tide here.

More about Red Tide

Members of Hands Along the Water at North Port City Hall Nov. 27, 2018

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Antunes: Bendersonville at the Bridge

Cathy Antunes is a citizen advocate who writes "The Detail" and hosts a weekly radio program about issues of concern to Sarasotans - both county and city. This article appeared first in SRQ Daily.  Bendersonville at the Bridge. Cathy can be reached at
How much density and intensity makes sense near a natural traffic bottleneck? Sarasota County may be pushing their luck and playing fast and loose with the health, safety and welfare of the community with the potential approval of Benderson Development’s request to build 479 residential units and 140,000 square feet of retail space at U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road. This intersection is already jammed during season, when a “Don’t Block the Intersection” electronic sign appears, threatening a $166 fine for those who “block the box.” The south bridge to Siesta Key at the west end of Stickney Point Road is the natural bottleneck, which creates the traffic backup. There are only two bridges providing access to Siesta Key. That reality is unlikely to ever change.

Siesta Promenade height and separation:
Sarasota News Leader
Traffic flows best when a road network is laid out and functioning as a grid—an interconnected system of routes giving us many alternatives to drive from one place to another. Numerous roads laid out east to west (Fruitville Road, Bahia Vista, Bee Ridge, Clark) and north to south (Honore, McIntosh, Tuttle) take pressure off of main thoroughfares like US 41. These north to south routes even help reduce local driving trips on I-75.

Congestion is also reduced when grid road networks exist in residential neighborhoods. Narrow neighborhood streets naturally force cars to slow down, and wide neighborhood streets create the perfect conditions for speeding. Offering residents a grid of narrow streets to enter and exit their neighborhoods provides safe traffic flow. A larger community grid road network does the same for a city or county.

But there are places where a grid is impossible. There are places where all traffic must be funneled onto one road. If you want to get to Siesta Key’s beaches via a route south of Bee Ridge Rd., you must drive through U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road, and travel west on Stickney to cross the south bridge. There is no other option.

Benderson’s lots on the northwest corner of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point have been vacant for over 10 years. Before being cleared, there was a Shell gas station on the corner and mobile homes behind the station. The current zoning allows for 300 mobile homes or residential multi family (townhomes, apartments) units, and some office or professional development. The current zoning would add about 4,000 car trips to the existing 45,000 cars at the congested corner.  Benderson’s request would add at least 8,000 more car trips. 

Benderson Siesta Promenade: Planning Commission Thursday 11.15.18

At Thursday’s Planning Commission hearing, Commissioner Robert Morris understood the unique problem at that corner. “It’s too much for there,” Morris said. “It might make sense to me somewhere else. But because you have that intersection, but because you have that bridge, it’s a unique situation.”

Benderson Development can ask to build more, but Mr. Benderson is not entitled to build more.  You wouldn’t know that listening to Planning Commissioners, who voted to recommend the project. Good Planning prevents traffic nightmares. Good planning includes saying “No.”

Cathy Antunes is the host of The Detail.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Let's not contrive a crony-driven disaster at our Celery Fields

Two-alarm fire at metal and recycling 

plant sends large plume 

of smoke over Sarasota

SARASOTA (WWSB) - If you were driving in Sarasota on Monday, you may have seen a large plume of smoke coming from the University and 301 area.
A two-alarm fire started at Suncoast Metals on 51st Street, a metal and recycling plant. The fire started in a pile of rubble and was caused by friction. Fire officials say as the items in the pile rubbed against one another while being pushed and pulled, it got hot enough to start a blaze.

Deputies are assisting with traffic on the scene of an industrial fire near 51st Street and Middle Avenue in Sarasota. You may see smoke nearby; please avoid the area.
Deputies are assisting with traffic on the scene of an industrial fire near 51st Street and Middle Avenue in Sarasota. You may see smoke nearby; please avoid the area. (Sarasota County Sheriff's Office)

Nearby buildings were evacuated out of caution as crews fought the fire. After the visible flames were out, machinery was used to separate the pile to ensure there were no smaller fires still burning in the pile.
The fire is now out.
The photo below from Kirsten Ketchum Barat shows the massive plume of smoke rising as firefighters battled the blaze:

Fire at metal and recycling plant from Kirsten Ketchum Barat
Fire at metal and recycling plant from Kirsten Ketchum Barat (Source: Kirsten Ketchum Barat)
Copyright 2018 WWSB. All rights reserved.

Chapman: Notes on Sarasota City election 2018

Susan Chapman and Kafi Benz talk about the city election -- a business-backed initiative to change the date of the primary and general city elections won approval from voters. They were at CONA on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Broken Banana

Republicans broke Florida politics. Things won’t be better there next time.

Democrats always think they’re one election away from taking back the state.

November 7, 2018 at 5:20 PM
Sen.-elect Rick Scott, governor of Florida, addresses an election-night rally Tuesday in Naples, Fla. (Jayme Gershen/Bloomberg)
I am not writing this from Florida proper, but from an occupied territory within Florida’s borders. I hail from Broward County, where roughly 7 in 10 voters this year chose Democrats over Republicans, and where none — not a single one — of those Democrats won their five statewide races outright Tuesday.
Andrew Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor who would have been Florida’s first black governor, led 16 of 17 polls taken in the state since mid-October and was given a 77 percent chance of winning by FiveThirtyEight’s projection model. He appears to have lost to Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis, who was credibly accused of running a racistfearmongering campaign, by about 50,000 votes out of more than 8 million cast. Bill Nelson, the incumbent Democratic senator, was widely expected to win, pulled along on the dynamic Gillum’s coattails. Nelson is currently losing statewide to tycoon and outgoing GOP Gov. Rick Scott by fewer about 30,000 votes out of 8.1 million.
My corner of Florida, the state’s bluest and one of its most populous, voted for Democrats in concentrations that rival those of Philadelphia, Manhattan and Chicago. And many state Democrats are pointing to some positive signs: They flipped two House seats in South Florida. They got voters to restore the franchise to the state’s estimated 1.7 million convicted felons, while banning offshore drilling and indoor vaping. Key West elected its first openly lesbian mayor, which is awesome, and would be even more awesome if I could afford to live in Key West or had any assurance that it won’t be strangled by sea-level rise before I die. In any case, some Democrats look at last night’s results and say, hey, Florida is still within reach.
Sure. It’s been just within reach since 2006, the last time a Democrat won a statewide office.
As pundits go crazy trying to reconcile the Sunshine State’s turnout with the national results, let me offer my own theory: “Florida” is increasingly a meaningless political entity, except in Republican electoral win columns. It is not a purple state, but a dystopian Republican frontier of America’s systematic “Big Sort” — a collection of ultra-blue principalities surrounded by and alienated from an entrenched ultrared state government.
Do you seek a bellwether for the United States’ chances of surviving Trumpism? Look to Florida, where the Mar-a-Lago spirit has been a governing ethos for many years already. So you want to know how Florida survives. The answer is it probably won’t — not as a functioning state that tends to the needs of its 21 million people. Florida is going to get more divided, less governable, and probably more susceptible to oligarchs and fiefdoms than it already is.
That’s the way Republicans have made it since they gained a trifecta in the state in the 1990s. A quarter-century of GOP legislative dominance has wrecked state services, created a haven for tax-hating rural retirees, gerrymandered districts repeatedly and relentlessly, bloated Tallahassee with outside money and lobbying influence, and created an electoral infrastructure that reliably delivers 50.1 percent of the vote to, uh, whatever Republican you’ve got. The party then accumulates those slight victories into a decades-long mandate, ensconcing its elite, rendering any alternative governance increasingly hard and unlikely.
Rick Scott is the Meriwether Lewis of this Republican strategy, the party’s prototypical pioneering wealthy neophyte candidate. After eight years in the governor’s mansion, his first public-sector job, Scott — like Trump — remains largely incompetentawkwardignorant of normsfull of fake optimism and loved only by his strongest partisans. But unlike Trump, Scott is capable of shutting up, comfortable telling more conventional lies and actually willing to blow massive portions of his dubiously gotten personal fortune to stay in races he should lose.
As of Wednesday afternoon — as his edge over Nelson hovers around recount territory — Scott has won three statewide elections in eight years by a total margin of 155,871 votes out of 18,976,891 cast, or 0.8 percent of the total vote. In those three elections, Scott pumped at least $124 million of his own wealth into his campaigns. If you believe public records, Scott has spent more than half of his net worth (or less than a quarter of his family’s net worth) to squeak out three victory margins just above automatic recount level. In Tuesday’s race, as in previous ones, he bought a slew of last-minute ads appealing to the id-impulses of Floridians. Scott won over-65s by double digits in this retiree-heavy state, although by Election Day his campaign message had largely boiled down to “Look how old my opponent is!
DeSantis, Scott’s gubernatorial heir apparent, called his black opponent “Andrew Kill-em,” parroted Trump lies calling Gillum’s hometown of Tallahassee the state’s murder and crime capital, refused to return campaign donations from an outspoken racist supporter, and told voters not to “monkey this up” by voting for Gillum’s “socialist,” “extreme radical” ideas.
“I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist,” Gillum responded. “I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.” DeSantis won 6 of 10 white voters in Florida on Tuesday.How did he and Scott run up enough of a margin in conservative counties to counterbalance the historic blue turnout in places such as South Florida? We may never really know, I suppose. In unrelated news, 65 percent of Walton County voters approved a measure Tuesday to fly a rebel flag on a local courthouse that bills itself as “Florida’s first Confederate monument.” They also voted for DeSantis over Gillum by 52.5 percentage points.
So, yes, you can look at the consistent Republican overperformance against polls in Florida in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016 and now 2018, and say that, without the obscene amounts of money and animus, plus a quarter-century of single-party domination, all these squeaker contests might otherwise be walkovers for sanity. But this is what Florida is. This is what it’s been molded into. The state is not going to get bluer: But its blue oases will, even as a red tide permanently claims more and more of the lands between them.
Take the ostensible victory of the night: voters’ approval of Amendment 4, which extends the franchise to the roughly 10 percent of the state population who have been convicted of a felony. Florida felons are now theoretically able to vote, but they’re practically reliant on a Republican governor, secretary of state and legislature not standing in the way of their attempts to exercise those restored rights. Democratic hopes (and GOP fears) of a blue wave in 2020 led by the newly franchised in Florida seem Pollyanna-ish when you look at the state’s gerrymandering and voter-suppression tactics in recent decades — though those look tame when compared with anti-voter GOP regimes in states such as Georgia and North Carolina.
Even if Florida Democrats start winning, they’ll have to contend with another newly approved amendment to the state Constitution that makes raising taxes impossible without a supermajority of votes in the legislature. In other words, if any politician in this 50.5 percent majority state actually wanted to improve a crumbling state Department of Children and Families, or beef up public disaster and health-crisis response, or rebuild a gutted public education budget, they’d have to get two-thirds of the state House and Senate to agree. (Republicans maintain comfortable, largely impregnable majorities in both chambers.)
For all the talk about Florida’s purpleness and unpredictability, for all of the Democratic turnout efforts and number-crunching and target-hitting, we have a stable model: The blue parts get bluer, while the red parts get redder, the election results stay slightly red, and the entrenched political culture gets much redder. In the future, Democrats will find more voters here, and Republicans will find more ways to make it hard for those votes to be counted, and even harder for them to lead to changes in government. There is no center to hold, only anarchy loosed upon the third-largest state in America.