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

Monday, January 21, 2013

Why I Won't be Voting for Susan Chapman

Susan Chapman is a talented, effective, and dedicated community leader.

And if her supporters want to take that quote and use it in her campaign literature, saying that the Sarasota Democrat that got nearly 90,00 votes in the 2008 County Commission race said so, they are welcome to do so. It won’t be the first time I have been quoted out of context in a political campaign.

My long-time friend and former candidate, Diana Hamilton, recently posted a SRQ  What Beats? column (Sign Wars) encouraging people not to base their vote on a single issue. Instead she suggested we think about the City Commission candidates as being on a life raft.

“If you were stranded on a life raft with any one of the six, with whom would you feel most safe? Which of them would you trust to share fairly the scarce provisions and row along cooperatively in the direction of an agreed upon truth north?”

I don’t think we can take the life raft test too literally. I mean if I were on a raft I’d rather have someone that could make a serviceable fishhook out of a broken pair of eyeglasses than someone who could only solve thorny pension issues. But I think what Diana was arguing for was judging candidates based on character rather than issues, particularly single contentious issues such as parking meters, Walmart, late-night music, or the so-called strong mayor.

So indulging in Diana’s metaphor about the life raft, I would want someone who listened to ideas about our floating predicament with an open mind, someone who did not engage in prejudice (pre-judging), someone who did not engage in personal attacks, and someone who could accurately remember what had been previously decided. And the fishhook thing.

There are some great advantages to aging. One is a certain disinhibition. Not so disinhibited as my father-in-law when he was in hospice care who would point out, to our embarrassment, how fat a nurse was, but the ability to speak truth to power, the willingness to say something that others are reluctant to say.

Since the first of this year I’ve had several conversations with people in the City of Sarasota who, when Susan Chapman is mentioned, look both ways, lean in, and in a sotto voce whisper explain to me why they can’t say anything. I’m old enough to not feel so constrained.

First let me say that my thinking on this is not based on a long relationship with Susan Chapman. I think there really have only been two issues I’ve connected with her on.

Susan was a powerful voice for relocating a lift station that has ended up in Luke Wood Park, instead of behind the High School. That has turned into a complete textbook debacle for reasons she can’t be blamed for. But it was, in my opinion, a tragic decision and the final insult to Luke Wood Park.* [There really should be a day of atonement each year when the City leadership reflects on how they have treated that gift to the City and resolves to never let it happen again.]

As many of you know, I locked horns with Susan Chapman on the subject of backyard chickens in the City. You may be tempted to conclude my opposition to her candidacy stems from the fact that she voted against chickens while serving on the Planning Board. But that isn’t so. Chris Gallagher voted against chickens and, if he were running for the City Commission, I would be a proud supporter. He met with me, listened to our arguments, and drew a different conclusion. Reasonable guy.

So it wasn’t Susan Chapman’s vote that soured me on her – it was her behavior/character. Not her position, but her process. Linking back to my life raft criteria, Susan refused to meet with me on the chicken issue, engaged in ad hominem personal attacks, adopted a strident position without knowing what was being proposed, misquoted me, and publicly misrepresented the adopted position of CCNA on the matter. As for the last transgression, that error could be excused if she was an outsider, but no one was more central in CCNA at the time. And a bunch of all that happened while she was chairing a City Planning Board meeting, which is a time when the Chair should be most rigorous about fairness and accuracy. So this wasn't the case of single unfortunate incident, but rather a cavalcade, a veritable panoply of multiple behaviors all unbecoming an appointed official.

I began my public life in Sarasota in 1977 and I can say that in the subsequent 36 years I have never been treated with more incivility by an appointed or elected government official than I have been by Susan Chapman (although the County Commission Chair that failed to speak up when I was called a communist was pretty bad - he must have lost track of the County civility pledge).

Now some will say I can’t have it two ways, objecting to Susan Chapman because she engaged in personal attacks and then posting a blog that some could construe as a personal attack on Susan Chapman. I’d argue that a commission race is precisely the time to address matters of behavior and character. In other words, opining about people's character when the topic should be issues is one thing, but when the question is qualifications for office, quite another. And I want y'all to know how disappointed I was in her behavior.

Of course, this essay notwithstanding, Susan Chapman has a good shot at winning a seat on the City Commission. After all, my opposition to a local candidate doesn’t necessarily amount to much. As you’ll recall, no one campaigned harder against Carolyn Mason than I and today she is the Chair of the County Commission, while I am but a sometimes blogger. And no one was more publicly outspoken challenging Charlie Crist’s looming appointment of Christine Robinson than I was, and she was Carolyn's predecessor chair of the County Commission (and she did a good job).

And Susan Chapman has some high-profile City activist supporters, people I admire and count as friends and allies. These include Kelly Kirschner, Dick Clapp, and Johannes Werner.

So I recognize that Susan Chapman may well be serving as a City Commissioner when I come before the commission to support, oppose, or comment on some city issue. But my historic opposition to Carolyn and Christine hasn’t prevented me from seeking their support on county issues. Because if you resolve never to work with people you have disagreed with, you’ll find there aren’t many (any?) elected officials you can work with.

Bottom Line: If you want someone on your side in the City of Sarasota, it would be hard to find someone better than Susan Chapman. (another campaign quote?) She is a skilled, relentless fighter more than willing to use a variety of effective (as seen on TV) attorney strategies to pursue her goals.

I just don’t think the City Commission needs a ruthless fighter with Susan Champan's M.O.

• I've been informed Susan Chapman was an early and dedicated supporter of the the alternate list station site at the High School. That's entirely possible, and anyone arguing for that alternate site should be commended. Conversely, I can't applaud anyone supporting the Luke Wood Park site, even as a last resort -- I just feel that strongly about parks, and this uniquely abused one in particular.


If you are looking for a second or third or fourth opinion on my assessment, please check out:

Whose Afraid of Susan Chapman?”,  by Jacob Ogles, which is another SRQ article and/or

Scroll all the way down to the bottom to find Letter from Mike McNees, Sarasota City Manager 2001-2007 responding to the SRQ article above

Ms. Susan Chapman/Police Advisory Board (Take this one with a grain of salt because the authors are not identified except by online handles. Anonymity sometimes emboldens people to overstate their case and these commentator's credentials as arbiters of civility seem lacking.)

Or read the comments associated with Sarasota May Fire Engineers on Sewage Project, a November 2102 Sarasota Herald Tribune article dealing with the lift station fiasco.

There is also at least one other online posting that views Susan Chapman in a negative light, but the screed I am thinking of is so over the top that I don't think it is worth the pixels.