City Candidates Debate Pandemic Response, Development

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BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY JUN 12, 2020

Frustration about the Lido Beach extended closure, despair about the economic recovery and accusations about special interest loyalty came across during a videoconference debate. The six candidates running for Sarasota City Commission in District 2 discussed a range of current events and ongoing community discussions at an event organized by the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association and the Downtown Sarasota Alliance.

City Commissioner Liz Alpert faces five challengers, but the earliest personal barbs were delivered at former Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta. Goldman Sachs veteran Jerry Wells suggested the economy was so hard the Benderson Corporation had to send Barbetta in as a city candidate, while city critic Martin Hyde called Barbetta “Joe Benderson” multiple times in his opening statement. “It does;t really matter which of the other five candidates win,” Hyde said.

That barb came as Hyde took decidedly different positions than he held a few years ago, now opposing administrative site plan approvals as one example. Alpert defended the approval process in general while saying there could be tweaks in certain situations, and Barbetta stressed the Downtown Master Plan developed by legendary planner Andres Duany depends partly on the process.

“Developers won’t invest the considerable time and money to build buildings if it takes years to get approvals,” he said.

Former City Commissioner Terry Turner in contrast said he pushed unsuccessfully to get rid of administrative review on South Palm while he served. Had that happened, new construction without proper setbacks would not have been built without community input or commission scrutiny. “Administrative site plan approval should be abolished throughout the city,” he said.

There seemed to be universal skepticism of requiring police body cameras, with candidates expressing concerns over privacy, cost and liability. “The biggest thing is we are not a city that has an issue,” said tech CEO Don Patterson, praising an existing city police culture to “serve and protect.”

The unpopular decision to leave Lido Beach closed weeks longer the Sarasota County or Manatee County shores stayed closed amid the COVID-19  pandemic found common ground. Alpert noted she voted against leaving the beach closed, and criticized those challenging her for the seat citing that issue. But Alpert was more optimistic than most about the city’s economic recovery looking forward. “I don’t think it will be as devastating as the 2008 recession and here’s why,” she said. “Property values did not drop. So we will have millions in losses but it will be a quicker recovery.”

But others said the incumbent didn’t account for many permanently closed businesses. Turner, a finance executive and economy, noted recent Federal Reserve projections that rattled investors; stock markets notably crashed the day of the debate. And Wells said city lockdowns made matters worse in Sarasota.

“I don’t think you understand the economic ramification of what just happened,” Wells told Alpert. “It’s not going to bounce back. The underlying issues are these businesses that were shut down and the revenue that was lost, When a hotel lost a night of revenue, they lost a night forever.”

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