Letters to the Editor regarding the Argus Conflict of Interest in Sarasota

Letters to the Editor and online media regarding Argus Foundation's hiring of Christine Robinson as its executive director while she remains a publicly elected official.

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


A County Commissioner Cannot Serve Two Masters

Last month 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:
and attend an April 1rst Rally for Integrity in Sarasota County government.
The Argus Foundation was established in 1985 as a “liason 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.”
SRQ Airport
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 doublecross their one-time partner (Hugh Culverhouse) on a major land deal.” (Herald Tribune, March 18, 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:
When: April 1st, 2015 12:45pm
Where: 1660 Ringling Blvd. north side of the County Administration Building
(across from the Downtown Post Office)
What: Integrity 2016 —— Rally for Integrity in County Government
Join members of various civic groups and your neighbors who are coming together to stand for integrity in local government!

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.


Letter to Editor, May 1: Get independent opinion on Robinson and Argus

Christine Robinson, as both a Sarasota County commissioner and executive director of the Argus Foundation, has indicated that her new job with Argus was properly vetted through the county attorney, Stephen DeMarsh. However, the commissioners hire, fire and evaluate the county attorney. Shouldn't there be an independent opinion as well?
As of April 13, according to a county representative, no one else from the county had reviewed or vetted the dual role of Commissioner Robinson, not even the county ethics staff. Should the commissioners' attorney be the final word on a perceived conflict of interest issue when it has to do with one of his bosses? Doesn't it make common sense, let alone legal sense, for another qualified professional to review this dual role?
petition of over 750 residents is demanding Robinson's resignation. She, as a public officer, should take advantage of her ability to request an opinion from the Florida Commission on Ethics and, in the spirit of openness and as a public official, share both the letter of request and the state commission response with her concerned constituents.
According to the definitions in the Florida Statutes, Chapter 112.312, (8):"Conflict" or "conflict of interest" means a situation in which regard for a private interest tends to lead to disregard of a public duty or interest.
Vicki Lynn Nighswander


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


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

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

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


No comments:

Post a Comment