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Sarasota City Election 2020

STEVE REID
Editor & Publisher
sreid@lbknews.com

Sarasota City Commission District 2 candidates have their final say this week on a number of critical issues. Incumbent Liz Alpert is being challenged by five candidates: Joe Barbetta, Martin Hyde, Terry Turner, Jerry Wells and Don Patterson.

Longboat Key News and Sarasota City News asked each candidate numerous questions and this week we present our final interrogation of the hopefuls.

Early voting starts Aug. 8 and Election Day is Aug. 18. Candidate Patterson did not respond as of press time. Here is what the other five candidates had to say:

 

If you could get support from fellow commissioners, what are your top priorities that you would like to accomplish if elected?

Liz Alpert: With support from my fellow commissioners, I would:

a. Adopt the Sarasota in Motion Plan which will create a multi-modal transportation system in the City to ease congestion and provide our residents and visitors with options regarding their transportation needs.

b. Make sure to find the best location in the City for the Sarasota Orchestra. Retaining our cultural assets and identity is important to continue our long-standing tradition of being the cultural center that encourages the arts.

c. Ensure the viability of Selby Gardens at its current location for the same reason as retaining the Orchestra.

d. Ensure the creation of a TIF district to support the Bay project.

e. Make sure we can create a climate to encourage the building of affordable, workforce housing.

f. Place a conservation easement on the Bobby Jones Golf Course property to maintain it as a green space now and in the future.

Joe Barbetta: Do a complete Budget review and eliminate all excess spending and revisit the excessive water & sewer fees and the debacle at Lift Station 87. The bleeding must stop. Also call for a vote of confidence on the Administration, in particular the City Manager, and deal with the issue quickly. Again the Goal is NO new taxes or fees. Also begin to set up a series of joint meetings with the County to address issues of mutual concern and also discuss areas where we can partner in order to realize cost savings. Again, great Cities make great Counties, we have mutual interests. The Budget crisis must be addressed immediately in light of this ongoing shutdown, which is now in its 6th month.

Also address the infrastructure deficiencies and prioritize them and direct the Administration and Staff to come up with Proposals & Solutions to deal with them. Relocate the Bus Transfer Station to the County-owned Ringling Garage. In addition begin looking at creating a Trolley Circulator System in the City connecting St. Armands, Lido, the Airport, Van Wezel, Robarts, and possibly the Hospital and Siesta Key  Also address the ongoing large Pension Liability and engage the appropriate CPAs/Pension Consultant to come up with solutions. Again, all this with transparency, fiscal accountability, and strong leadership. Also, work with the existing Arts & Cultural Organizations and Institutions to help restore their confidence in remaining in the City of Sarasota.

Martin Hyde: I’d want to create a referendum for a change to the city charter to replace the city manager with an elected and therefore more accountable full time Mayor.

Terry Turner: A) Maintain essential city services during this severe health & economic crisis.

B) Establish an effective, functioning city commission, which sets goals and objective for the City’s staff and holds the City Manager accountable for meeting those goals and objectives. Currently, commissioners are not listening to residents, are not cooperating with one another and are not leading our city.

C) Preserving the character of Sarasota, protecting the environment & ensuring the financial stability of the city

Jerry Wells: I have been vocal that we terminate the city manager Tom Barwin. Having spent 40 years as a successful businessperson I can tell you that the old adage, “It comes from the top down” is true. Much of the trajectory we are on is due to poor leadership of the staff coupled with misguided ideas on how to spend / invest tax dollars. I will use the latest example of the Bobby Jones golf course. Mr. Barwin withheld very pertinent information from the City Commission regarding an opportunity to shift the capital burden from the taxpayer to a private equity group. This deliberate hiding of $20,000,000 cannot be tolerated any longer by a city employee. This comes off of the total debacle he created with the Lido Key City Beach property that cost us the taxpayer $250,000. Let’s not forget this is the same employee that violated the Sunshine laws on communication transparency and helped himself to free tickets to the symphony, Broadway shows and musicals. This is what is easy to uncover, I cringe at what we were to find if we really started looking. Let’s avoid any more of this nonsense and let me start cleaning up the office and bring common sense smart business approach to City Hall.

 

What are the greatest threats you see facing the City and what solutions do you propose?

Liz Alpert: The greatest threats facing the City are

a. Managing the growth properly to maintain our quality of life. This can be done with smart growth principles and smart transportation options, both of which I have been advocating during my time on the Commission.

b. Managing the City budget to maintain the level of service our residents expect while dealing with the budget shortfalls that will result from the pandemic. This can and is being done by measures such as hiring freezes and delaying or cancelling some capital improvement projects.

c. Serious damage to our business community due to the pandemic. I voted for a $5,000 grant to help our small businesses to weather this economic storm, but as the pandemic continues, there is more that will need to be done. I will work with the business community to determine their needs and how we as a City can help.

Joe Barbetta: The greatest threats start with the serious loss of revenue and its effect on the City Budget resulting from this Pandemic and Shutdown, which is now in its 6th month. The failure of leadership and the dysfunction at the Commission and Administration level in not properly addressing this issue will have serious financial consequences in the coming years. This along with the lack of transparency and fiscal accountability will result in an ongoing financial crisis if not addressed quickly. There has been a lack of oversight on projects, huge cost overruns, excess spending, rapidly rising water & sewer fees, the Bobby Jones situation, Parking Department problems, questionable actions by the Administration, Lido Beach closure affecting St. Armand’s businesses, and the delays in helping the Business Community through these bad times. The first thing to be done is a complete & detailed review of the current and upcoming budget, eliminating unnecessary spending, putting non-urgent projects on hold, freezing salaries and raises, no new hires, furlough employees where necessary, and find ways to partner with the County on cost saving measures such as IT/Technology and Economic Development to name a few. No new Taxes or Fees must be the goal. Also review the list of all surplus property owned by the City and if no designated/required future use then put it up for sale and get the property back on the tax rolls. New revenue is needed and excess spending must stop. The Taxpayers should not suffer here.

It is important to restate the fact that Governments do not exist simply for the purpose of raising taxes and spending money but in reality to efficiently and effectively provide the essential services to its citizens, which enhance Public Safety and our Quality of Life. This top priority has been missing in City Government for many years.

Martin Hyde: Obviously the economy locally and the impact that could have on local employment is the biggest concern. If the city itself has less money to spend at city hall that’s a good thing as it means they can waste less! We do need though to do everything we can to get our businesses back on full terms at the earliest opportunity.

Terry Turner: The impending global recession will be more severe than the Great Recession of 2009. It is likely to cause a severe financial crisis for city government. To survive, the city must act now to eliminate extravagant spending, eliminate lower priority services and focus on essential services. The city must plan now for the reduced revenue it will experience beyond 2021. Currently, City government is making only short term adjustments to get through 2021 and is hoping the financial crisis does not come. Hope is not a plan.

Jerry Wells: The greatest threat that we are facing will be economic compression. Everything always comes down to money. Without proper cash management we will find ourselves in a complete financial disaster. Sadly, that is exactly where we are heading. We must get the expense side of our balance sheet under control. The wasteful spending needs to come to a screeching halt. $60,000,000 cost over runs on the lift station are unacceptable. That is going to result in a 45% increase in your water bill. Many of our residents are retired and on a fixed income, we can not continue to do this to them. Every year this commission has raised our tax, all while setting record after record increases in revenue. We need a true seasoned business professional at the table, I am that guy.

 

We are losing the Players Theater to Lakewood Ranch and Mote Aquarium is leaving the City. The Season of Sculpture no longer showcases large works on the Bayfront. The Sarasota Orchestra is itching for a new home. Are you concerned about keeping cultural concurrency as the city and region grows? How would you go about attracting and retaining our current and future cultural amenities?

Liz Alpert: I am already on record as being a vocal advocate of retaining our current cultural amenities. I fought for the Orchestra’s desired location in Payne Park and will continue to work with them to find a suitable home for them in the City. I am also on record for being in support of Selby Gardens and their master plan. I will continue to fight for making sure that we allow our cultural institutions the ability to grow with the population. If they can’t do this, they will find other places that do recognize their importance to the community. Again, as a City we need to work with these cultural institutions to see what it is they need and do what we can to facilitate that.

Joe Barbetta: Yes, I’m very concerned. The City Commission and the Administration do not seem to fully comprehend the tremendous importance of our Arts and Cultural Institutions in the City. These Organizations and Institutions not only enrich our Community culturally but they also employ a considerable number of very talented people, they work with our children in our Schools, and they are a critical component of our Economic base. I think it’s very unfortunate for example how the Orchestra proposal was handled and I would make every effort to encourage them to bring their plan and proposal back for a new review by the Commission, which hopefully will have new leadership very soon. The same holds true with Selby in bringing back their revised plan. The goal of the new Commission should be to make every reasonable effort to keep them all in the City.

Martin Hyde: We have good options for the orchestra on City property but not within Payne park. The arts generally are a quality of life issue and should be given appropriate support on that basis.

Terry Turner: I am concerned. The most pressing issue is a new home for the Sarasota Orchestra. We need a home which is acceptable/desirable to both the orchestra and the city’s residents. The city commission and city staff have failed both the orchestra and its residents. It is my hope that the next commission will be up to the challenge.

Jerry Wells: What has been happening is a complete and utter disgrace. We are losing one cultural venue after another. I blame the city manager for most of this coupled with a commission that is absolutely clueless on how to negotiate a deal where everyone is a winner and we could retain our arts and culture. Once we lose all of our culture we become just another beach town. My family moved to Sarasota over 30 years ago, from NYC for the culture. My mother a retired science teacher, volunteered at Mote for a decade. My children are growing up as members of Mote. Losing it is a crime. We are a very musical family, my mother played piano, Heidi plays piano, our children all play, except Mia, who will probably also take lessons. We enjoy and appreciate the orchestra, the symphony, theatre and ballet. Just in case people didn’t know, half of the Orchestra’s campers receive scholarship to participate. These are wonderful cultural experiences for people/children of all ages. It’s time for change. I will bring that change.

 

Should speed bumps remain on St. Armands Circle?

Liz Alpert: The speed bumps on St. Armands Circle were placed there temporarily to protect the pedestrians on the Circle. In the meantime, we are working with Longboat Key and FDOT to find some other solutions such as pedestrian crossing managers that was tried on a test basis previously.

Joe Barbetta: While speed bumps are a somewhat effective traffic-calming device I am not a fan of them. I personally feel that the concerns of slowing speed as one enters the Circle along with the approaches to the crosswalks could have been better addressed with installing the “ribs” in the road surface similar to the approach road to the Sarasota Airport Terminal. They immediately make the driver aware, via a slight continuing vibration, of the need to slow down, along with appropriate signage and they effectively reduce speed without the unsightly speed bumps and without shaking the car and passengers unnecessarily. In addition I would have installed the motion-sensor, blinking light crosswalks similar to those in front of Morton’s Market. Whatever occurs out there I feel that the residents and the St. Armands’ Association should be part of the decision making process.

Martin Hyde: There are other traffic calming measures that I prefer.

Terry Turner: The combination of distracted drivers and crowds of pedestrians is potentially dangerous. Some sort of speed control is warranted. However, I believe the installed speed tables may be more disruptive to traffic flow than is necessary. I think highway rumble strips would alert distracted drivers and should be adequate.

Jerry Wells: Traffic calming is a good thing. It is working on Long Boat Key. With the new crosswalk lights, people are now able to safely cross from one side of the street to another with out the fear of being hit by a car or truck. I am in support of traffic calming. Traffic calming goes hand in hand with sustainability and quality of life issues.

 

Would you commit to preserving the number, width and capacity of lanes on Fruitville Road, Tamiami Trail and other routes of ingress and egress and evacuation from the barrier islands?

Liz Alpert: My commitment is to provide for the best solutions to traffic management along these roads. Anything that I would support would provide improved traffic flow and capacity and would not hinder any evacuation from the barrier islands. Our transportation planners actually tracked the use of Fruitville as an evacuation route during the last hurricane to hit our area where evacuation was called for and the number of cars on Fruitville decreased during that period of time rather than increased as evacuations generally takes place over a period of days and the other traffic that would generally be on the roads decreases substantially during that time.

Joe Barbetta: Yes at the present time until another viable and workable solution is proposed for consideration. It is imperative that hurricane evacuation and the ingress and egress of emergency vehicles must be given top priority, especially from the barrier islands.

Martin Hyde: I’d leave the number and size of the roads as they are.

Terry Turner: Yes.

Jerry Wells: Under my watch we will not shrink any of the roads, period the end. Fruitville Road is a hurricane evacuation route. We are not going to take chances with human life so that Barwin and his gang can spend a king’s ransom on this project. Shrinking the roads would create more traffic, frustration, accidents and a dangerous situation for our residents.

 

And what about the “road diets,” which narrow existing roadways in order to expand sidewalks and add bicycle lanes? Are you in favor of these?

Liz Alpert: I am on record of being in favor of these in certain situations. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to transportation. Each situation must be decided based on the specific situation. In many situations where these have been used across the country, they have been the catalyst to economic vitality and satisfaction by residents.

I serve on the Metropolitan Planning Organization that determines where Federal transportation funds are spent in the Manatee/Sarasota area. We also work closely with FDOT. I also serve on the Florida League of Cities Transportation Committee, so transportation is a subject I care about and try to educate myself about regarding best practices.

Joe Barbetta: Not as to Fruitville Road as it meets US41. “Road diets” do work in certain urban areas and actually do not impair traffic flow and do result in fewer accidents because of slower speeds but I do not believe they will work well here as proposed for that area of Fruitville Road.

I feel that there is greater room for improvement relative to the walkability and crossover to downtown from the properties north of Fruitville but I do feel that there will be unintended consequences and negative secondary impacts to traffic flow resulting in problems for traffic to and from US 41 and the Ringling Bridge, St. Armand’s, Lido and LBK if lane reduction takes place. Fruitville Road for all too long has been a major connector to the eastern portion of the City & to I-75 along with being an Evacuation Route. The adding of the 3rd turn lane at Gulfstream and 41 coming off the bridge funnels even more traffic at certain times seeking to use Fruitville. Undoubtedly, figuring out a way to move thru traffic over 10th street to 301 would be a possible solution to then address the Fruitville Project.  More complete studies need to be done by City Staff in conjunction with the County and the State. No money needs to be spent on additional consultants, etc. There should be sufficient talent on the staffs of the City, County, and State to carefully come up with appropriate solutions. I agree that it is technically a “local” road in an urban area and that it bifurcates the downtown area from the numerous urban area properties to the north. As I mentioned earlier, solutions need to be sought to assist with the connectivity of that area north of Fruitville to the Downtown Core. One might be ground level, signalized pedestrian crossovers at a couple of locations along Fruitville for starters, similar to that on US41 in front of the Ritz. In addition an enhanced landscaping plan all along the road, pedestrian islands and other speed reducing and beautification solutions to assist with the connectivity of both sides of Fruitville should be considered.

Martin Hyde: Road diets on an evacuation route like Fruitville is a daft idea and I won’t even consider it. Bike lanes for sure are good.

Terry Turner: The City’s mobility plan is based on an assumption that the government can and should force residents and tourists to walk, bike, etc. by imposing a road diet.

I do not favor forcing people out of their cars. I believe it is wrong for government to do so. Further, given our weather and the demographics of our population, I believe it will not work; a transportation plan based on trying to force people to change their behavior in this manner will fail.

Jerry Wells: NO, this is going to be a total disaster, same as questions 6. Shrinking evacuation routes is out right dangerous! Shrinking other roads is just stupid. We have miles of beach in Sarasota County, walk the beach. We have miles of the beautiful Legacy bike trail and it’s expanding, utilize that amazing resource. I’ve never seen so many people walking the bridge than I have during covid, and it never looked or felt over-crowed that we have to take away traffic lanes for walkers and bikers. Again, there is a safety issue with the amount of traffic that would get out of control with narrowing existing roadways. We moved from NYC where we walked everywhere or took the subway. Now, we don’t even walk to the circle on hot summer days, I couldn’t imagine walking over the bridge to get my groceries or go to the doctor or take our daughter to school. It’s a terrible, horrible, ridiculous idea to force older people out into the hot sun and pouring rain on a bicycle to get to a doctor appointment or the market.

 

Do you want a roundabout at Gulfstream Avenue and US 41 as is planned?

Liz Alpert: The roundabout at Gulfstream and U.S. 41 has taken years to work its way through the system to where we are now with the construction to begin after “season” next year. Much of the funding for this is coming from the FDOT. It is part of the overall plan of roundabouts along U.S. 41 to increase traffic flow, make this corridor safer not only for cars, but for pedestrians, and make it the beautiful entrance to our City that it should be. This roundabout is key to making the whole system work. If this is not built, a bottleneck will be created that not only will increase the congestion coming over the Ringling Bridge and not provide the congestion relief that the barrier islands are seeking, but also will increase the congestion on U.S. 41. It is imperative that this traffic improvement is built as planned for the barrier islands and all of us.

Joe Barbetta: No, not as it is planned. I think that there has not been a complete and full understanding of the negative secondary impacts and the unintended consequences, which will result not only during the long construction process but also in its operation upon final completion. I think it is sort of an afterthought in trying to squeeze it into a small area after pretty much everything around it is already built out. I feel that it is too late for this and it will not alleviate the problems and may in fact exacerbate them. First of all the so-called “Roundabouts” in and around the City are really just “Traffic Circles”, their design does not truly slow down speed because they’ve been shoe-horned into small areas and don’t allow for speed reduction on the approaches. I come from an area that not only has Traffic Circles but also true roundabouts and we do not have the latter here in Sarasota even though we call them that. In any event I think this project needs to be put on hold immediately. The third turn lane that was put in as you come off the bridge approaching 41 has been helpful and when the Fruitville / 41 construction is complete we can see how it fully operates and study its efficiency along with its problems, if any. Serious consideration needs to be given to all residents West of this intersection including Golden Gate Point, Bird Key, St. Armands, Lido, and Longboat Key and the effects that the construction and final product will have on them. Serious consideration also needs to be given to rerouting Southbound 41 thru traffic going to points south of downtown to utilize 10th Street or Fruitville to get over to US 301 to head south. Improvements should be made to 10th Street all the way to US301 to help accomplish this. Conversely the same for northbound traffic heading to points north of downtown.

Martin Hyde: I don’t want the roundabout as I think it’ll be a disaster but it’s coming and for that you have to point the finger right at Liz Alpert and the current commission that agreed to it.

Terry Turner: The engineering studies I have seen indicate that the Fruitville and Gulfstream roundabouts function as a pair. Building one without the other will fail, so we are committed to completing the roundabout at Gulfstream. The engineers say the pair of roundabouts will alleviate the traffic mess. I hope they are right. Plan B will likely be roundabouts with traffic lights.

Jerry Wells: NO.

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