A blog dealing with Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Skeletons in my closet

My father acquired a skull for me probably when I was around 12, no doubt to spur my interest in archaeology. The skull came from South America and I was told it was from the Andes, but I have no idea from what culture or even what country. In the 60's people like my father weren't very concerned with the appropriateness of acquiring bones from another continent, but now most people would balk at this behavior. At this point I feel a little weird about having it, but, with my father dead, there is no practical way to repatriate it back to wherever it came from.  

Somewhere else I also have a tooth from a Sperm Whale. My father acquired that probably about the same time when I was fascinated with whaling. Of course, having a Sperm Whale tooth is like having an elephant tusk -- a haunting legacy from a time when taking these animals was considered appropriate. Since I acquired it prior to the adoption of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, it is not technically a violation, but, like the skull, it exists as a tangible, regrettable reminder of past transgressions.

When I started contemplating running for office several people recommended I pay for a background check on myself, " to find out what the opposition will find out" about myself. Sobering thought. I made a list of all the ways I could remember elected officials getting in trouble: DUI's, racist remarks, falsified credentials, sexual improprieties, illegal drug use, payoffs, physical violence, domestic abuse, hanging out with known criminals, etc. I think I ended up with about a dozen potential topic headings and ran through my own personal history with some trusted members of my team. There were a few pings, but in the opinion of those present -- no fatal flaws. No doubt if people dig around they will discover my arrest record, my traffic accident, and who knows what else that is part of the public record. 

These probes are apparently part of contemporary politics, although I have no stomach for or interest in this sort of scrutiny of whoever I end up running against.

I, of course, am aware of past transgressions for which there is no record, save in my brain. The time I pulled out on a rain-soaked stretch of 41 and caused another car to swerve and fishtail, nearly causing an accident. That was dumb. The promotional boxes of TIDE or some such detergent that had been left on neighborhood door knobs that I felt were abandoned and brought home to my mother. [ She had me re-hang them.] The time I painted my father's duck hunting clothes with green enamel paint in an effort to make them more camouflaged. The borrowed books that for whatever reason never got returned. People I didn't mean to hurt who got hurt anyway. Early forays into lying before concluding the effort was too great and the rewards too meager.

I imagine we all carry around a legacy of past mistakes, sins and transgressions; some more guilt-soaked and regretful than others. 

I can only hope voters understand that people don't run for public office because they think they are faultless, but rather in spite of the fact that they know they are imperfect. 

I imagine every candidate in every race nationwide has made mistakes. Its actually a little frightening to imagine voting for someone who never did. So the question is not so much about what exactly happened but what was learned. Did it lead to a new, more appropriate life or was it just another episode in an ongoing pattern of problems? Some repeated transgressions, no doubt, do reflect on one's ability to serve.

And yet.

We saw Charlie Wilson's War the other night.  I don't know the level of veracity in the movie, but clearly this was a profane, womanizing, coke-using legislator, who (if we are to believe the premise of the movie) may be responsible for the defeat of Russia in Afghanistan, if not the fall of the USSR. Makes you wonder where we would be if the nation's outrage or propriety dials had been turned up a little higher during the 80's. 

I have yet to be exposed to the gauntlet of public scrutiny some say is inevitable. Others suggest that taking the time and money to actually research an opponent's past is old-fashioned, that modern campaigns simply make things up. We'll see. Those of us willing to dare the glare of the public spotlight are apparently no longer protected by the biblical exhortation limiting stone throwing to those without sin. 

Bottom Line:  I can't appropriately return the Andean skull or put the tooth back in the whale. We can't undo what has been done, only can we resolve to do better. I'm not proud of everything I have done in my life, but I refuse to let my potential to be helpful be held hostage by the inevitability of human fallibility.

Friday, December 28, 2007

What distinguishes Sarasota's Quality of Life?

Here's an essay I wrote in 2000. It deals with Quality of Life, a somewhat slippery term that obviously means different things to different people. In this essay I propose a rule of thumb for determining what contributes to our quality of life here in Sarasota, as opposed to Clearwater or Naples.

I’ve always taken Quality of Life to represent attributes above and beyond the basics. Health, housing, enough to eat, good education, etc. are essential, and, tragically, not part of everyone’s life. But the effort to seek the basics says little about what makes an experience or place special, sacred or treasured. Here is my rule of thumb: If a stranger wouldn’t notice its absence, it may well be crucial to our quality of life.

Examples: If a stranger were taken to a concert in a Van Wezel that looked like a big pale shoe box they probably wouldn’t bat an eye. But Sarasotans would scream if our purple pleated structure were replaced with a straightforward box. Thus, by my accounting, Van Wezel contributes our quality of life. A stranger would have no reason to predict a hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop would be decorated with dozens of charming old publicity stills of circus performers. But the Main Bar exists, and to my way of thinking is a treasure.

 Strangers would predict fast food franchises, strip malls, traffic, sprawl, etc. so I conclude these do not contribute to our quality of life. They would not predict the existence of St. Armands Circle, Myakka River State Park, scrub jays, Mote Marine Lab, Warm Mineral Springs, or Selby Gardens. Put them in the plus column.

 In terms of quality of life we have lost, strangers don’t expect North Lido’s sand to be as white as confectioner’s sugar and squeak. It did once and does no longer. A stranger wouldn’t expect to find the nation’s largest circus wintering in a modest gulfcoast community, but it did and does no longer.

 These things can be subtle. Not many people expect sidewalks to be pink. But in my neighborhood, when the pink sidewalks are replaced with pale concrete we feel a loss. So whenever we flatten a Bickel House, bisect a neighborhood with a wide new road, saw down a tree older than our oldest citizen, or otherwise make Sarasota more like the archetypal, homogenous American community and less like its idiosyncratic, unique, local self; we erode our quality of life.

POSTSCRIPT: Here are a few more places a naive visitor wouldn't notice if they was missing: Caspersen Beach, Snook Haven, the bird rookery at the South County Administration Center, the Hermitage, Sarasota Jungle Gardens, Spanish Point, Jessica's Stand, Old Miakka, Siesta Public Beach and the Phillippi Estate.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Man Bites DOG!

The Pelican Press just came out with its 2007 year in review. I was surprised to see how many of the noteworthy stories I had been involved in in some way. 

January 25: National Veterans Cemetery. I don't know what role the Myakka River Management Coordinating Council played in the siting of the cemetery, but we made it clear we would have high standards for any portion of the site draining into the Myakka. The final boundary does not include portions of the Myakka watershed. Goals: Protect the Myakka. Avoid problems for VA.

February 15: Land Clearing Issues. I ended up serving on a working group that reported back to the County Commission in December. More to come. Goals: Reduce habitat lost when developers choose alternatives that allow habitat destruction rather than meeting existing restrictive requirements.

March 1: The County moves forward to buy lots adjacent to Beach Access #7 on Siesta Key. I voted against this at the PARC meeting, arguing that there already was an access there, that virtually all of the dunes were otherwise protected and that the neighborhood parkland dollars were not intended for parking lots. Goals: Save limited Neighborhood Parkland money for truly special places. 

July 5: City Cultural District Master Plan. I contacted staff and some elected officials arguing that the proposed new approach to Van Wezel from due east would be prohibitively expensive, be difficult to permit and partially destroy some of the last remaining natural shoreline in the city. Goals: Save taxpayer money and the environment.

March 22: Gulf Beach Campground. The question about the continuation of camping came before PARC in December. I argued (successfuly) that we take a position on this,  something the Chair had argued against. Then we unanimously voted to support the continuation of camping, with conditions that there be buffering and supervision. Goals: keep income stream and unique historic use - part of what made Sarasota unique.

April 5: Road funds. I have testified several times against a proposed new bridge in Manatee County -- the Fort Hamer Bridge. There is no bridge now, and I contend no real need for one. Manatee County has decided to go it alone on funding, we'll see what happens. Goals: Save taxpayer dollars for other road projects, protect the environment.

May 17: New Voting Machines: I was recruited by the County Commission to serve on the committee to recommend a new system. After several meetings I was elected chair. You can watch proceedings of the committee online. Goals: restore faith in voting systems. 

July 12: Bird Colony Islands in Roberts Bay: I went to an early meeting of a group working on this project. I remain concerned that unanticipated effects of the stabilization efforts may result in the loss of the roosting and nesting areas anyway. Goals: Question accepted wisdom -- is this project really worth it?

July 19: Rosemary Community Garden: I worked hard to save the garden, which had been targeted as a site for affordable housing. We argued the garden was doing more for the community and lost, although there are plans to construct a new garden elsewhere. It is hard to respect the people who submitted the application describing the site as vacant, when something like 40 individuals had been gardening there, some for more than a decade. Goals: Stand up for a neighborhood and challenge the assumption that affordable housing is ALWAYS the best use for a site.

August 23: Midnight Pass: I don't recall doing anything about Midnight Pass in the past year. I loved it when it was open, fought to keep it open, and drafted the report calling for a major opening, but after nearly a quarter  century it is time to accept reality. The current plan will cost $10 million to start with and a million each year thereafter -- let's save that money or spend it on more important coastal goals. Goals: Save taxpayer money, protect natural ecosystem.

October 11: Drought conditions: I've been attending some of the meeting of the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply authority asking them to consider paying big water users to permanently reduce their usage. I believe this will be cheaper than developing new sources, which people tell me costs about $10 million to develop a supply capable of producing 1 million gallons a day. Goals: find cheaper sources of water, protect the environment.

November 15: Supermajority: While I took no position on the measure itself, I did write a letter to the editor objecting to people who characterized the measure as somehow unAmerican or unconstitutional. Goal: Object to people making bogus arguments.

December 20: Democrat to run for County Commission! While announcements from Repubican incumbents Thaxton, Staub and Mercier failed to make the Year in Review, the idea that a Democrat might run was considered a major news story of 2007. Man bites dog indeed. 

Not yet a candidate

I'm starting this blog with both excitement and trepidation. I haven't filed with the Supervisor of Elections yet, so technically I don't have a campaign and I am not a candidate. On the other hand,  since gmail makes this service available for free I haven't expended any money, this first entry is really announcing my intention to become a candidate. 

The Sarasota Herald Tribune broke the news of my intentions on Christmas eve. Jeremy Wallace's column "Democrats dreaming of Sarasota County win" focused on three main themes: my potential to break an unbroken streak of Republican County Commissioners that stretches back to 1970, the fact that I am no stranger to county politics, and  a very truncated summary of my record of service to the community.

Jeremy also covered my possible run in his December 18th blog: Democrat considers county commission run.

Pelican Press reporter Rick Barry also broke the story Jono Miller will run for County Commission a few days earlier. His story also covered the democratic angle, mentioned that I was "a leader in civic affairs for three decades" and pointed out my concern about the state of the local economy. 

All this was preceded by a Mark Gordon CoffeetalK piece environmental activist may run for county seat (second page) that ran in the Observer.