It’s been nearly five years since Christine Robinson moved from a public role as a Sarasota County Commissioner to a leadership post at the Argus Foundation representing the business community. In many ways, she represents in manifest the crossroads of the government, for-profit and philanthropic worlds. We sat down with the community figure to discuss how she managed interactions between the politics, corporate lobbying and setting an agenda for the broader community.

SRQ: Has the job been everything you expected? Robinson: It’s been better. I was drawn by the people and the effect that the Argus Foundation historically had and the change it’s made in the community. And it has quite a legacy in this town. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by smart CEOs.


What have you brought as a former elected official? It’s bringing understanding to the Argus Foundation, as to how things work in government. But in the reverse, it’s also allowed me to understand how these elected officials are feeling and what’s going through their heads, what they have to contemplate. It brings a deeper understanding for everyone. When you were an elected official, you’re in a different role. But I don’t change the way I interact with people. I loved to interact with neighborhoods when I was a county commissioner. It’s not the stuff that made newspapers. But I developed really deep relationships throughout the community from that. And I see those people reach out to me today, and some of them still write me today. I’m performing a different job function now. Now I’m advocating for a better community, as opposed to being a decision-maker.


How has your arrival changed Argus?  They hired somebody who has a good feel for the way they’re feeling. We obviously agree on the majority of issues. I think they hired me because of the way I look at policy. I could tell you what won’t fly and what will fly most of the time, but every once in a while, they feel differently about a topic and I carry that out. The majority of my time is investigating and getting facts and data, because that’s what my board expects on an issue.


What’s the benefit of having a foundation like this as opposed to just relying on the Chamber of Commerce? We’re very different than many of the chambers and the trades groups in that we don’t provide membership services. You join the Argus Foundation to improve the community and to bring forth better policy in the community. We’re communicating more with the outside community. We’re not afraid to let people know where we’re at on things. But we are also putting it out there that we’re receptive to having conversations about issues.


You mention the foundation’s history. How has the mission evolved? We’ve always had a broad mission statement. We could take on local issues, as we saw the importance of them. We definitely have evolved on the issues we’ve taken. We’ve always been involved in education. But we’ve broadened the topics we tackle now, whether it be election reform, or criminal justice issues, or workforce issues. CEOs typically like to look at measurable goals. They like to bring solutions to the table and measure those solutions. They also like to measure where you’ve been. Bringing that different perspective has helped government in general.


What are the most important historical successes for Argus?  It was 20 years ago now that the SchoolMatch study happened. It was led by the Argus Foundation, with all the major foundations and the Herald-Tribune joining. They did a broad-based study of the school system. From that committees were formed and from there the (school sales tax) referendum was taken to the ballot. It failed, but then the next time it passed, and we still have it today.


What about in the last five years since you came on board?  Change the Date Sarasota (moving city elections to November) was definitely an important win for the community. Increasing voter participation and having a broader population participate in the election and look at local elected officials is important, and it’s saving money at the same time. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the elections will turn out differently. But it will affect the elected officials. It makes them more accountable to a broader community. It was never about changing the faces up there.

What role does the business community play as a stakeholder in terms of public policy? The business community pays a lot of money in taxes, so we have a financial stake. But also, CEOs live here. They raise their families here; they have grandchildren here. They have a stake in the quality of life. That’s really the primary motivator more so than anything. There is a small group of people that try and vilify the business community to advance their own interests, but most people appreciate what business brings. They are the reason our philanthropic community is so vibrant. Look at sponsors. They’re all companies that have CEOs who live here. You can’t run government like a business, but you cannot apply business principles to government to make it better. That’s a huge contribution.


Is the vilifying intentional?  If I get a phone call from somebody asking me a question, I always try and respond to them and have a discussion. We may end up agreeing to disagree, but they understand where we’re coming from. It’s the folks that don’t even have the dialogue or appreciate the fact that there can be a different perspective to their position. But like I said, that’s a minority. We have a great community here, who does a good job supporting local businesses, and our local businesses turn to in a lot of good jobs supporting the community.


We often see debates about whether government needs to run more like a business,  but doesn’t. Do you find Argus and government at loggerheads? You can’t run government like a business, but you can apply business principles to government to make it better. That’s a huge contribution. Budgets are probably the area where we disagree with governments the most. We’re looking for efficiencies, and sometimes governments just looking to expand their revenue. A good example would be the gas in 2016. That was being proposed and pushed by county government. We launched a social media campaign during

Hurricane Irma. People were still able to get to their phones and get on email and get on social media to find out what’s going on. Just letting people know what’s happening caused folks to write into their county commissioners to say, “Hey, we have 5 percent tax on water electric and propane, another tax is not the way to go.” It turns out they didn’t need it. Their budget today looks really good.


I understand you have worked recently with the Newtown HVAC program. What motivated you guys to get involved with that? I was approached by Commissioner Willie Shaw, who asked for the Argus Foundation’s assistance creating workforce training in Newtown. I was intrigued by the idea, so I went on a couple-month research journey, talking to people, talking to construction firms and folks who have tried workforce training in Newtown before and failed. Understanding what’s happening and how it evolved, I went back to Commissioner Shaw and said this is a worthy endeavor, and we’re going to explore it. But we’re going to want to do this a little bit different than what you envisioned. The City Commission was looking at building a building to house training, and we thought building a program to justify the use of a building was the way to go. We connected with Mireya Eavey from CareerEdge. 

I had worked with CareerEdge before as a county commissioner when we wanted to get a machining program started. She started exploring this topic with me. Today, we have a training program at the Boys and Girls Club for HVAC maintenance. We contributed to CareerEdge, and the city contributed as well. We all came together to make this happen. And it worked. It’s small, with nine students. But we have been working with the next class. And we’ve had people hired into jobs right out of the HVAC program.  


And how do the finances work with this program? Is this something that relies on government funding? We contributed.
CareerEdge contributed. The city contributed. We all came together to make this happen. It’s small. There’s nine students right now. But we’ve created a program. And what makes us a little different is that we have also partnered with the Public Defender’s office to create a program where those who have applied that have driver’s license issues and criminal histories, to see if we can help clear those up before they enroll in a program. The next class, we got some applicants who were willing to work on some of those criminal history issues and driver’s licenses to get them reinstated. Now they can take the HVAC course and be hired out of that program. So it’s also a recidivism benefit.


That’s interesting because you mentioned Argus started to get into criminal justice reform. That hasn’t always been considered a business issue. How has thinking evolved there? Let me tell you about a project related to that. We just joined with the local ACLU to work on a bail bond study for our jail, to determine who’s in there, who shouldn’t be in there, why they’re in there, how long they’ve been in there. Argus was going to help guide the decision-making on new jails and on programs for the future. Our community is very interested in that. But it just got everybody thinking and understanding that if you can get somebody back on their feet again, it’s going to cost the community a lot less money. The business community is in dire need of a workforce right now. It’s a win-win situation all the way around for everybody. And you get to change the course of a life. From that, we learned the ACLU was going about to embark on a jail bond study. So the Argus Foundation came forward and said, “Hey, we’re interested in what you’re doing, and would like to participate. We’ve been meeting with the criminal justice players in the community to say this is what we want to do, we’d love your input and assistance.” We’re going to get some good information and recommendations out of it for the community. We’ve been watching the various players in government having the same conversation over and over. We’re hoping an outside push from two groups that aren’t typically on the same side of the fence will make some positive change. That’s probably been the part I really enjoy personally, is working with different groups, on things that we can agree on. I’ve really gotten to know a lot of good people in this community who I normally disagree with on a lot of issues, butI’ve been able to work with them on projects for the betterment of the community.


Does your experience with political coalition building help bring people to the same table? The fact I was able to work with these organizations while I was an elected official and gain their trust, even if we disagreed on issues, helps. That has been a seamless transition for me into this role of being able to work with different groups. And these groups have been able to come to us because they know we have our door open to solutions. The coalition we were able to build for Change the Date was unbelievable, right? We had the police union and the ACLU endorsing the same cause. The police union said to me, at one point, I don’t think we’ve ever endorsed the same issue before. We actively look for those opportunities.


Sarasota has such a history of contentious discourse. Does that make it difficult when you do bring people together? We’ve done it through our events. We bring people in who we don’t always agree with, but have good deep civil discussions, and we have a reputation for that. We lead by example. But also in the same regard, we are always looking to solve the next community issue, so we’re not looking to vilify an organization for the position they’re taking. We’re just going to argue the facts against it. I think people have understood that about the Argus Foundation. This year we recruited the CCNA [Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations] to join us and call for more accountability for the School Board referendum and to create a Financial Review Committee for that. They joined us in that call. You can always improve in relationships. But we’ve demonstrated we have the ability to reach out to people and make a case.


You are no longer an elected official but your husband, Eric Robinson, now sits on the School Board. Do either of you get accused of your agendas driving the other’s actions? That argument is a matter of convenience. But I will point to the superintendent as an example. We held a joint reception with the Chamber and the Education Foundation, to welcome the superintendent in. We didn’t get any objections. We hosted the superintendent for a Meeting of the Minds luncheon. We didn’t get any objections for that. But when we disagreed with the majority of the School Board on some issues, that’s when the objections started to come. I think that is a convenient argument for when you disagree with someone. It’s not always a board member that’s bringing matters up. My president brought an issue to our board, and our board decided to take a position, one that was driven by my 25-member CEO board. That wasn’t driven by me. So if there is friction, it’s because they’re not willing to recognize the some of the problems that are happening.


Dealing with a board, is it challenging to know what position to take on particular issues? We’ve had a Meeting of the Minds event where we don’t necessarily have agreement within our own organization about the topic. For instance, we had a conversation in February about legalization of marijuana, and regulation of marijuana, recreational marijuana. We have not taken a position on that, I can tell you. I hear lots of voices on both sides of the issue within our organization. But we were able to come together and learn about it and learn about the issues and expose the public to those issues as well. It was such a great discussion that allowed people to contemplate different positions. And we will bring in people that we don’t agree with most of the time. George Soros was brought in a little before my time, but is a great example. We’ve used our Meeting of the Minds events to bring statewide leaders to our community, so they can be here in Sarasota, experience Sarasota and learn about our issues just like we can learn about them.