Business, builder groups back campaign against single-member districts
Groups including the Argus Foundation and the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange have spent $85,000 supporting a political committee opposing a county referendum.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor
As a recently formed political committee has rallied against developer influence in Sarasota County politics, local business and building industry groups have donated $85,000 to the campaign.
On Oct. 5, the political committee Stop! Stealing Our Votes filed its first financial report with the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections. Stop! Stealing Our Votes is campaigning against a proposed county charter amendment that would create single-member districts for County Commission elections.
What are single-member districts? Currently, although county commissioners represent five different districts, voters countywide elect all five commissioners. The single-member district amendment would change the county charter so each commissioner was elected only by the voters within the district they represent.
Stop! Stealing Our Votes has paid for mailers and online advertisements asserting the amendment would give developers and special interest groups more power over county elections. But proponents of the amendment have accused Stop! Stealing Our Votes of deliberately misleading voters — and they say the list of organizations supporting the committee supports those accusations.
According to the campaign finance report, donors to Stop! Stealing Our Votes include:
The Argus Foundation, which gave $50,000;
The Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, which gave $15,000;
The Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association, which gave $10,000;
The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, which gave $10,000.
The only other listed donation is $100 from Joseph Neunder, a Nokomis chiropractor. Stop! Stealing Our Votes has drawn scrutiny from resident activist groups over its name and its messaging. Russ Bobbitt, the political committee’s chairman, previously served as chairman of the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange and currently sits on the group’s board of directors. Campaign messaging from Stop! Stealing Our Votes has heavily featured the argument that the change would lead to increased developer influence over county politics.Despite his ties to the building industry, Bobbitt previously said he has a genuine interest in preventing unchecked development in Sarasota. Mary Dougherty, executive director of the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, offered a similar perspective while explaining the group’s opposition to the charter amendment.
“I don’t think it’s about demonizing developers,” Dougherty said of the campaign against the amendment. “We all want smart, quality growth that leads to a vibrant community and a vibrant economy.”
A paid mailer from Stop! Stealing Our Votes lists development influence as the number one reason to oppose single-member districts.
"Developers and other special interests will be able to overpower neighborhood candidates and more easily control a majority of county commissioners," the mailer states. Dan Lobeck is the president of Control Growth Now and a member of the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections board of directors, two groups that have supported the single-member district campaign. He said the donors to Stop! Stealing Our Votes made clear the committee’s messaging was disingenuous.
“Their consistent advocacy has been for the developers,” Lobeck said. “For them now to suggest they’re on the other side, fighting against developers, would be laughably absurd if this wasn’t so serious.”
Argus Foundation Executive Director Christine Robinson said the organization primarily opposed the charter amendment because it believed single-member districts would remove incentives for commissioners to have a countywide vision. Jon Mast, CEO of the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association, said the group opposed the amendment because it believed all county residents should have the right to elect all five commissioners.
Robinson said it was fair to raise concerns about poorly managed development under the proposed system. She objected to the notion that opponents of the amendment were just development lobbyists, stating the groups collectively represented about 2,000 county businesses. And she pointed out the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections received $10,500 in donations from companies associated with Palmer Ranch developer Hugh Culverhouse in support of the amendment.
“If they’re criticizing the business community, they need to hold a mirror up,” Robinson said. Culverhouse, however, said he supported the amendment because he thought there needed to be stronger regulations on development in the county. He believes prominent developers such as Carlos Beruff, Pat Neal and Randy Benderson exert too much influence over the commission, and that single-member districts would make commissioners more accountable to their constituents.
“It’s about time we in Sarasota believe in democracy, not oligarchs, because you’ve got three or four powerful people — I’m certainly not one — who control the commission,” Culverhouse said.
At least one major resident association has signaled support for a shift to single-member districts. The Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations distributed a document to its members in which the group’s executive committee says the proposal is in the best interest of the city and neighborhoods. Kathy Kelley Ohlrich, former CCNA president, brought the topic to the group for consideration because she thinks the city of Sarasota does not have a strong voice on the commission.
“The present system is out of balance, with some representatives voting against the interests of their districts or ignoring important collective needs,” the CCNA document says about the issue.
Headed toward the November election, those associated with Stop! Stealing Our Votes maintain the group is leading a good-faith campaign against the proposition. “This is not a developer effort,” Robinson said. “This is a business-led effort because we’re concerned about quality of life.”
Supporters of the charter amendment find that hard to believe.
“I know that honesty and honor is at a historic low point in the national political arena, but it’s never been anything close to this low here at home,” Lobeck said. “People should be outraged at the deceit of the developers in this gambit."
This piece originally appeared on YourObserver.com in 2018.