Lobeck: On two city issues, protect the public
Two important and controversial matters are listed for routine Sarasota City Commission approval Monday. The public can speak for three minutes each.
After 1:30 p.m. is a push by city staff for final approval of an agreement to put 53 acres of public bayfront property in the hands of certain business interests calling themselves the Bay Park Conservancy, for up to 45 years.
Although a Herald-Tribune column rejected my previous call for delay as “B.S.”, that delay has brought important improvements in the agreement, after the city attorney was finally brought into the drafting as I asked.
However, the changes are not nearly enough to protect valid public interests. The City Commission has a history of flawed contracts that cost taxpayers millions, so you would think they would want to get this one right.
As I suggested, and some commissioners agreed, the redraft now calls for approval of one phase of the Bay Park project at a time, rather than a huge commitment of taxpayer dollars all at one time. However, it still commits only city taxpayers to funding and relegates the promises of philanthropic donations through BPC to mere proposals which BPC is explicitly not obligated to fulfill.
Remember Benderson Park, where promoters promised $20 million in donations which never materialized but instead repeatedly sought and got more taxpayer dollars? Again, that should be a lesson learned. Especially with BPC now competing with the Van Wezel Foundation, Sarasota Orchestra, Selby Gardens, Mote and others for donors to fund expensive new projects.
My suggestion: The city should say, “Show me the money.” Amend the draft agreement to provide that no permit is issued for a Bay Park phase and no taxpayer money spent until BPC has raised all promised donations, for construction and for an endowment to fund maintenance and operation, and those funds are in a secure account.
The agreement also needs major improvements which I have specified regarding public records, conflicts of interest, design, contracts, restaurant leases, the BPC board and otherwise. There are far too many “shalls” for the city and “mays” for BPC.
Monday’s other action, after 6 p.m., is city staff’s insane scheme for a “road diet” to reduce Fruitville Road downtown from four to two lanes. This is being pushed by developers — and staff routinely backs developers — north of Fruitville.
It is also part of the push by staff to embrace traffic congestion to somehow force us out of our cars to walk or bike wherever we need to go, and ride buses that get caught in traffic too. The developers love that because, if you don’t need to worry about traffic, why control development?
In 2003, staff sought a road diet for U.S. 41 by Gulfstream Avenue along the bayfront but was shot down by an outraged public. They got the same reception three years ago for the Fruitville scheme and laid low while trying to build support, only to now raise it suddenly for approval.
To make things worse, staff has paired its road diet with a plan to put barriers along Second and Fourth streets (on either side of Fruitville) to prevent traffic from going straight in some places and turning in others, and requiring cars to move slowly behind bikes in the same lane, all deliberately to chase cars off those roads as well.
It is to be hoped that this irresponsibility is rejected once and for all.
On Monday, the city commissioners should disregard pressure from staff and special interests and do their diligent duty to protect the public they were elected to serve.
Dan Lobeck is a Sarasota city resident, business owner and attorney and president of Control Growth Now. www.controlgrowthnow.org