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

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Incumbent's Beware & County Commission Term Limits

Jeremy Wallace's column today emphasizes the precarious position many incumbents find themselves in. 

He mentions the District one race:

It is a similar line of reasoning for Jono Miller, a Democrat challenging Sarasota County Commissioner Paul Mercier, a Republican. Miller said he is counting on voters wanting to try something new.

"How do we get a fresh start with the same people?" Miller asked.

Mercier, first elected in 2000, went unchallenged in 2004.

For challengers, an incumbent's tenure in office is no deterrent to running as it may have been in the past. Instead, challengers say it helps them make their case for change.

Is this trend that threatens incumbents new? I'm not sure. In my lifetime only one commissioner (Andrew Sandegren) has managed to serve more than two terms as Commissioner from the first District. 

While incumbency can be an advantage to a candidate, Wallace's column reveals it can be a liability as well.   

One example is those voters who could never vote for someone seeking a third term.  Such voters will have plenty of time to convince me of the merits of their arguments. That jury is still out. But, incumbents beware, they have made it clear that they will not be voting for my opponent. 

Just for the record, I'm not a proponent of term limits for County Commissioners.

In my opinion, there's been sufficient turnover in recent years (albeit all Republican) and there is a real risk that too many neophytes could lead to a very weak commission. The average length of service of the five present commissioners is eight years, with a range from two (Barbetta) to twelve (Staub). 

In fact, if you go back to 1980 I think the average is still about 8 years, notwithstanding the long-haulers like Bob Anderson and David Mills. We tend to remember people that were leading for a long time and may mentally skip over other community leaders like Wayne Derr, Jack O'Neil and Ray Pilon. That effect may contribute to the perception that, in general, commissioners are staying too long. 

If at some point the future the average term of service drifts up above 10 years then we should be asking if that is because everyone is doing a great job as evidenced by healthy two party competitive races or if incumbency has once again become more insurmountable. Until then, I'm comfortable with the present reality -- that incumbents must prove themselves or risk defeat. 

May 14 POSTSCRIPT:  To see how the anti-incumbent two-term limit argument manifests itself, visit this blog

Personally, I don't like the idea that disgruntled voters in 1998 might determine who I can vote for in 2008. (Maybe we're more gruntled now?) If 68% of voters still don't like commissioners to serve more than two terms, then, I would argue,  68% of them can go to the polls and vote against two term incumbents on a case by case basis. It is hard enough to find good commissioners (or even people to run), getting rid of them because of a clock seems like a waste of talent to me. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Do-It-Yourself Myakka Ranchlands?

One implicit goal of a political campaign is to turn up the contrast between candidates, eliminate the overlapping shades of grey and make the contest stark and polarized. But both my opponent, Paul Mercier, and I were there in Tallahassee in mid-December as part of a diverse and impressive team pitching an ambitious proposal called "Myakka Ranchlands", an 18,743 acre vision that would add close to 30 square miles of Sarasota County to the roughly 150 square miles that are part of what is known as Myakka Island

And although the proposal was placed on the short list of the "A" list, it really doesn't matter where the project is ranked if no additional money will be forthcoming. According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, the Florida House has included no money for land acquisition this year. The state's economic downturn has created the perplexing paradox of not having money for land acquisition at a time when some relative deals are to be had. And the Myakka Ranchlands project appears to be time sensitive -- it is unlikely the offer will be around in its present form when the economy rebounds. 

Reacting to the sobering story in today's paper, Dan Lobeck wrote to a number of local leaders proposing, basically, that the county forget about the state and field another local land protection referendum to raise the funds to protect the Myakka Ranchlands. 

Lobeck is the President of Control Growth Now and is known for speaking his mind. As a result he simultaneously enjoys two somewhat contrasting reputations, first as saying what others won't and in the process frequently representing the views of 'average' Sarasotans more closely than many other spokespeople, and secondly as having utilizied a style that has, for some people's taste, relied too much on personal attack and accusation. 

His Myakka Ranchlands suggestion probably reflects his first tendency -- no doubt others have wondered about the County going it alone, but shied away from discussing it publicly.

Could it work? It would involve asking people for a lot of money to purchase an alternative future at a time when many are likely more preoccupied with the present challenges. But Dan argues: "Surely the taxpayers will perceive that it will cost them less to preserve the land than to pay the consequences of its development."

Dan proposes a next step of doing some polling or survey work to determine if the 'surely' in the preceding sentence is actually warranted. Such testing the waters could provide valuable baseline information about public attitude, but the numbers might be higher and more encouraging if someone actually developed a case statement that would explore and lay out for scrutiny the anticipated benefits of this ambitious vision.

I've put my time in fighting developments and I eventually realized the County could gain more true protection for natural areas by working to buy land and development rights from willing sellers than by trying to constrain development projects. I still believe that, but I'm not sure the values are intuitively obvious to the electorate. At least I know I spent a lot of time over two campaigns to drive home the point. 

If Sarasota leaders want to assemble the facts regarding local protection of the Myakka Ranchlands and take them to the people for consideration, first through polling and then, if warranted, through referendum; I'll be there. 

Of course, the cost of protecting the Myakka Ranchlands could be greatly reduced if the public were only paying for the land and the development rights could be preserved and relocated elsewhere in the County. That may not appeal to Dan, but it probably should be explored as an alternative strategy. The devilish detail, of course, is where those units would be welcome. Dan is already on record as opposing any relaxing of traffic concurrency, a key growth management element that, paradoxically, many feel is actually fueling sprawl. 

It is seen to feed sprawl because it limits growth in developed areas (where many want more density to support transit and affordable housing) while offering no comparable constraints on more remote areas that have not yet become clogged enough to trigger limits.  The County Commission will be holding a workshop (no public testimony yet) on these issues on Tuesday April 15th. 

Meanwhile, I need to find some more issues (see my March 25th blog entry) where Paul and I are on opposite sides.