Planning Board Politicking Must End

Guest Correspondence

Photo: July 1 City Commission meeting.

The City of Sarasota has an identity problem. It’s not the entire city; the problem lies in its appointed city planning board.   

This advisory board has decided it wants to become a second city commission. Ignoring the advice of staff and the advice of the City Attorney’s office, it has decided it will use the comprehensive plan as a reason to dive into anything and everything they can vaguely associate with it. 

This is a problem that is political. With former city commission candidates within its body, including one that was voted out of office, it is easy to understand why this is happening. The feigned offense that anyone would say it out loud doesn’t make it not so.

I watched, with interest, the July 1 meeting of the Sarasota City Commission, where the planning board veered far out of their lane. The majority of the city commission understood the gravity of what was happening right away.  

Commissioner Hagen Brody reasonably expressed his thoughts and concerns at the tone of the conversation at the planning board level. His sage statement was good advice. “I would just encourage you to think about the power you have when you sit in that chair and the restraint you should be showing on some of these issues.”

Instead of taking the issue to heart and reflecting upon the advice, the planning board members responded with dramatic political martyrdom. 

Several publicly announced the tendering of their resignations. It was a Greek tragedy unfolding before our eyes on government television.

Commissioner Willie Shaw then injected some timely wisdom into the discussion. “We are not going to allow our ‘E’ to override our ‘I’ in this situation, our emotions to go over our intelligence. We are not going to allow ourselves to be distracted by the moment and to do something that we will all regret in the days to come.”

The city commission then took no action on the planning board’s recommendation and moved on. It was a respectful and appropriate way to handle a board that was criticizing city processes and responsibilities while ignoring their own.

So what happened at the next planning board meeting nine days later? What reflection did this body have upon the commission comments? What did they do to move away from the political maneuvering?

The answer, unfortunately, is that they doubled down. At the first substantive item on the agenda, a cross-examination of city staff ensued to prove their righteousness. 

Even the planning board chair admitted her sarcasm in her question, which would more appropriately be characterized as a passive-aggressive stab at the city commission, the very body they serve at the pleasure of. Then the planning board chair blamed her inappropriate question, after apologizing for snapping at city staff, on an unexplained PTSD – presumably referring to the July 1 city commission meeting.

The meeting spiraled down from there with another staff cross-examination.  Finally, in board member comments, the supermajority of the planning board members then attacked staff and city commissioners, one even calling them uninformed and another questioning commission leadership.

Enough is enough. This is unfair. It is unfair to applicants, taxpayers, stakeholders and city employees. The planning board needs to take a deep breath and decide if they are going to be respectful volunteer advisors who understand their boundaries and are helpful to address important planning issues, or, are they going to politically drown the process in their self-importance?

I served on the county planning commission for just shy of three years. I understand the time, commitment and the passion that can go into these positions. But that level of commitment must be equally met with a very healthy respect and understanding that you are not an elected commissioner. 

Respect staff, respect the people in front of you, respect taxpayers and voters, and respect the city commission. End the backbiting and lashing out after you were very appropriately put back on course by the city commission.

It is now your job to bend over backwards to exercise restraint, reflect upon your actions, and make this right.  Stop the politically motivated poor treatment of staff and applicants, make a concerted effort to bring back the trust into a board that has lost its way.

Christine Robinson is executive director of The Argus Foundation.

Photo: July 1 City Commission meeting.

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