Board hides from truth of its own opinion survey
Updated: Oct 3
For 30 years, the Board of Sarasota County Commissioners has paid professionals to conduct a telephone survey of randomly dialed people, who are invited to answer prepared questions. Sarasota County got a report from its professionals on the results of its 2021 "Citizen Opinion Survey" on Tuesday, September 28. It also heard from citizens.
Although last year's survey (2020) noted that the top concern for Sarasota residents is "population growth and new development," the county did not ask follow-up questions on this year's survey, which cost taxpayers $90,000. Yet growth remains the top concern named by this year's randomly dialed Sarasotans.
Two citizens -- Pat Rounds and Tom Matrullo -- addressed the Board before the Survey company made its presentation.
". .. around the County people are anxious, upset, and even enraged at how oversized developments receive blanket approval despite the reasoned objections of those whose homes, neighborhoods and lifestyles are impacted," Matrullo said.
While the Board had claimed that Sarasotans who voted for Single Member Districts in 2018 were "confused," the Board's own 2021 Citizen Opinion Survey showed that a plurality of respondents "strongly approved" of the change to Single Member Districts, said Rounds, who also spoke during Open to the Public. More of Rounds' statement is here.
Matrullo questioned why the Board has not taken the first step toward implementing ways and means of allowing the people of each district to have a richer relationship with staff and the Commissioner they voted for when addressing district issues.
"The County currently has no satellite offices, online facilities, or public town halls to engage issues at the district level," he noted. "Now that each Commissioner is accountable to residents grappling with supersized growth, district dialog must become a priority."
Citizens have seen no movement to create district-specific web information or outreach, and the reason is fairly obvious. If the county does not wish to go near the issue of growth and development on its survey, it surely doesn't wish to highlight it in communicating with residents who -- like many from Old Miakka, Stickney Point and Siesta Key -- have strong concerns about excessive growth.
"The county’s pro-growth policies have led to this new reality," Matrullo said.
Sarasota County is no longer that small, homogeneous place where new housing, commercial and road projects were few and innocuous. North Port now has 75,000 souls. Wellen Park will add perhaps 60,000 more. Each district is undergoing unique pressures warranting close collaboration among residents, staff, and elected officials.
Why has the Board resisted Single Member District Voting? Two reasons are immediately apparent: First, each Commissioner is now accountable at the ballot box to the people of his or her district. Those voters are most familiar with the Commissioner's voting record, especially on planning and development issues they might openly be fighting.
Second, the Commissioners currently work for the people who put them in office -- i.e., the developers, builders' lobbyists, contractors, Realtors and associated business interests who lavishly fund their campaigns. Single Member Districts make our most powerful elected officials vulnerable to real people -- the residents who experience the impacts of supersized developments in their lives and on their tax bills. The net effect is a return of democratic power to those who are meant to wield it. If voters are empowered, the developers are dis-empowered.
In refusing to take action to accommodate the new reality of Single Member Districts, the Board of Sarasota County Commissioners is showing where its interests lie. Matrullo urged the Board to take the first steps to right the imbalance that has led to special interest control of land use and development rights for decades:
. . . voters weren’t confused when they told you that Single Member Districts are needed now. The very thing that worries our citizens - galloping growth - requires a deeper, more granular approach to community dialog and governance. Single Member Districts afford citizens a more vital and constructive role in shaping Sarasota’s destiny.