Argused

The Detail

BY CATHY ANTUNES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY NOV 22, 2014

When it comes to flouting standards, one consultant auditing Sarasota County procurement in 2012 opined “these people take the cake.”  The audacity level in local government has been kicked up a notch.  Commissioner Christine Robinson’s new gig as Argus Foundation executive director has Sarasota outpacing Washington, D.C. when it comes to catering to special interests.

Last week, Commissioner Robinson announced she will begin work as executive director of the Argus Foundation in January 2015.  The Argus Foundation represents the interests of over 170 members from development, legal, financial and other business sectors.  Many consider Robinson’s hire unacceptable, citing Argus’ (and its executive director’s) active lobbying of County government.  Coming under community criticism, Argus Board President Bill Merrill defended the decision, calling Argus “no different from the YMCA or the United Way.”  Really?

According to the Argus website:

“The Argus Foundation was established in 1985 as a liaison between city, county, state and federal governments to involve itself with the vital matters that have an impact on the quality of life in Southwest Florida... The Argus Foundation actively monitors the activities of the various governmental bodies and comments on relevant government proposals... The Argus Foundation is in a position to advise and assist public officials in those decisions that affect the life style, environment, and economic well-being of our area and to hold public officials accountable for performing their duties in an efficient and cost-effective manner. It does not, however, endorse political candidates. As a member of The Argus Foundation you will be associating with the president's and CEO's of some of Sarasota's largest and most well-established corporations. Representing more than 50 different industries, Argus has a base of professional knowledge in financial, legal, and technical backgrounds from which to draw expertise and advice on a wide variety of issues. Argus has actively helped shape Sarasota's past and is poised to exert that same leadership well into the 21st century.”

Argus lobbies and takes positions on County issues, including impact fees, land use decisions and SRQ Airport governance, as well as City issues like an elected mayor, strong City manager, Newton redevelopment, and Downtown development.  The executive director of Argus frequently weighs in with City and County Commissioners on these and other issues. When was the last time you saw the directors of the United Way or the YMCA lobbying the County Commission in this manner?

A January 2003 Argus newsletter states “We face a real challenge to embrace the need to move the urban service boundary east of I-75” and “we need to recognize that the counterpart to ‘growth’ is ‘death.’” The March 2008 newsletter calls for the Van Wezel “to be operated by either a non-profit or the private sector.”  The July 2012 Argus newsletter outlines why the City of Sarasota’s charter should restructure auditing and IT functions, creating a strong City Manager with an independent auditor. The same newsletter indicates prior Argus support for an elected mayor. Oh yes, the Argus newsletter is just like the YMCA’s. Maybe they can hook you up with a personal trainer. 

According to an Argus IRS 990 filing, the executive director was paid $134,550 in consultant fees in 2012.  As a Commissioner, Christine Robinson is paid $81,521 a year.  Sarasota County can rest easy knowing Executive Director of Argus Christine Robinson will be advising and holding accountable County Commissioner Christine Robinson, and she’ll be paid handsomely to do so. How cost effective! 

Robinson justifies her new employment with a memo from the County Attorney, who says because Argus doesn’t engage in business contracts with the County, Robinson’s new employment is okay. Sarasota’s ethically-challenged status remains intact.

At least in Washington, elected officials leave office before becoming paid lobbyists.  

SRQ Daily columnist Cathy Antunes serves on the boards of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations and Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government. She blogs on local politics at www.thedetail.net

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