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Dark Money Targets March 8 Votes in Sarasota

Updated: Feb 19, 2022

In the last year, Sarasota has been documented as one of the fastest-growing places in the U.S. Our airport has also made the list as one of the nation’s fastest-growing. We’re ranked No. 1 as best place to retire and one of the 10 best places to live. The Wall Street Journal identified us as a “top emerging housing market.” Time magazine named Sarasota as one of the “World’s Greatest Places” in its top 100 list.. . . And yet…I’m terrified about the impact of all this growth. Sarasota Magazine

In Sarasota's overheated economy, the Charter Amendment vote of March 8, 2022, is not just another special election. It’s a referendum on our Board of County Commissioners, on our machine politics, and it's a decisive tipping point for Sarasota County.

On one side: 115,000 residents who in 2018 chose to restructure our vote to create new jobs for our Board, making each commissioner a true representative of a single district, accountable to that district’s voters. On the other side: 5 commissioners and the Big Money interests that installed them as the concierge desk for developers, and wish to retain their services.

However, advocates for Single Member Districts, (including SAFE and Citizens for District Power) have recently uncovered a third side: Glitzy and turgid ads now saturating our airwaves, phones, and social media are urging us to use our voting power to repeal the people’s choice of Single Member Districts. These ads carry the required information that they are paid for by an outsider slush fund called "Sun Coast Alliance."

Make no mistake -- though they’d probably like it if you did -- this is not the Suncoast Alliance of Lifelong Learning, a tried-and-true asset of our community. This “Sun Coast Alliance” is a bucket of faceless money sluicing through a vast swamp of Political Action Committees (PACs) designed to render the origin and journey of those dollars largely untraceable.

“Sun Coast Alliance” shares a mailing address with dozens of other fictitious entities at 115 East Park Avenue, Suite 1, Tallahassee, FL 32301. The man behind it, William Stafford Jones of Alachua, has been called "a shadowy political operative" whose associates include some of the most influential Dark Money men in Florida's political universe, according to The Gainesville Sun.

Besides turning up more than 55 PACs linked to Jones, the Sun's examination reports a gerrymandering scandal and years of collaboration with Patrick Jay Bainter, the notorious “Kingpin” of Florida PACs. For three decades, Bainter's firm -- Data Targeting Inc. -- has been infusing huge quantities of mystery moolah into dozens if not hundreds of Florida campaigns, especially in the Senate, but also those of Ron DeSantis and Matt Gaetz. Jones himself was behind a PAC that pumped money, with Eric Robinson's help, into messaging that attacked Democrats in the 2019 Venice city council election.

How does this make our election on March 8 a tipping point?

Simply put: During the last dozen years, Sarasotans have seen neighborhood after neighborhood try to talk to the commission. They come armed with spreadsheets and tears, lawyers and aerial photos, professional planners and dignified anger; hoping to ward off severe impacts to their communities. They offer carefully reasoned arguments and ask our five commissioners to do their jobs -- to be custodians of the public realm. Recent examples include

  • The Siesta Key Coalition asking the Board to say “No,” to mega-hotels on Siesta Key;

  • Homeowners on Stickney Point seeking to restrain Benderson's over-sized Siesta Promenade, and

  • Old Miakka's effort to avert the decimation of east county's rural lands due to enormous housing expansions in Rex Jensen's Lakewood Ranch, the Turner family's Hi Hat Ranch, and other ambitious developer projects.

Instead of encountering civic custodians, our citizens find five stone-faced officials who, after a few dithering minutes of feckless justification, approve oversized projects that pave green space, intensify traffic, and alter the character and way of life of the places we call home. It's not unusual for the Board's “discussion” to move from unconvincing sympathy for the impacted citizens to smarmy admiration for the developer -- whose Big Money bought their seats on the Board in the first place.

Nothing could toss a monkey wrench faster into Sarasota County's systemic corruption than than having to actually represent the single district comprised of residents whose painstaking work received less than bupkis from their elected representatives. Two Board members not beholden to developers could significantly moderate the pace of growth. Far easier for Benderson, Neal, Beruff, Kompothecras and Jensen to drop money on a countywide campaign, where four-fifths of the 350,000 voters possess no knowledge or interest in your district. Single Member Districts enable real people to stage campaigns that are not only affordable, but who can also gain traction from meeting, greeting and listening to the people of one district..

The character of our county is at stake here. Sarasota put forward the state’s first county Comprehensive Plan back in the 1980s, when most counties hadn't dreamt of such a thing. We were considered that rarest of Florida places -- a county that tried to be thoughtful about growth and to resist high-powered movers and shakers with big plans and bigger wallets. In little more than a decade our Board has been reduced to serving private interests -- when Commissioner Paul Caragiulo voted against approving a demolition plant right next to our amazing bird sanctuary known as the Celery Fields, he lost Big Money backing for a second term.

The construction syndicate fears that Single Member Districts could wrest its control from the elections and from the planning process, giving back a genuinely participatory role to the people.

So now, instead of waiting until November to ask the entire voting public to weigh in on Single Member Districts, the Board hopes that fewer people will show up on March 8, and fewer still will navigate the tricky ballot wording (for example, the words "single member districts" do not appear anywhere on the ballot). And to ensure that we remain powerless, the developers have called in a Tallahassee Trickster with no ties to Sarasota to buy the result they crave.

Good luck finding a picture of PACman William Stafford Jones. He’s under the radar, moving dark money to fund media sleazy enough to persuade us to vote against ourselves. --->

March 8 will decide what path our county takes, and who leads the way -- will it be the people who live here and love it? Or the developers seeking to dominate at least four Board seats so they can monetize what's left of Sarasota? Will outside influencers who neither live here nor care -- mystery men like Mr. Jones -- tip the balance?

Vote NO on March 8 to preserve what remains of the tradition, sensibility, and thoughtfulness that have long been the core civic values of Sarasota.

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