EAST COUNTY — Lakewood Ranch resident Vanessa Baugh is turning heads.
As the newly elected member of the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners makes her way down Lakewood Ranch Main Street, passersby wave to catch her attention and offer their congratulations.
It’s been that way ever since the Nov. 6 election, Baugh said.
“It’s really exciting,” she said, smiling. “It’s almost as though this wasn’t a win for me; it was a win for the people. That’s how it comes across.”
After months of a strenuous — and often contentious — campaign, Baugh said she’s ready to get to work, as did the board’s other new member, Betsy Benac, who was elected to an at-large seat.
The women, who spoke with the East County Observer in separate interviews, will take their seats at the dais Nov. 27.
Though the women held a common victory party on election night, because they had many common supporters, and will be working together frequently over the next four years, both note they serve their unique electorates.
“We’re not a team,” Benac said. “We’re individuals. The entire (board of county commissioners) is a team.”
Baugh, who spent about two years on the campaign trail, replaces District 5 Commissioner Donna Hayes, who held public office since 2004.
“It’s exciting to have the election over and humbling to know people in this area have elected me to represent them,” Baugh said. “My goals are to, of course, help create jobs, (improve the) economy, increase revenues and fiscal responsibility. Now is the time to honor the wishes of the people.”
Baugh said she’s anxious to have her first Town Hall-style meeting, likely held each quarter, with constituents, to ensure she stays in touch with them and hears their concerns.
“So many people can’t make it to a commission meeting during the day,” she said. “We need to make sure I’m there for them.”
Baugh hopes to get more involved in economic development and have an active role in helping the county lure new businesses to the area.
“It would be nice for them to have a relationship with a commissioner,” Baugh said. “Being a business owner, I have an idea of some of the problems and issues new businesses face coming to a new area.”
“I’m looking at this as a great opportunity to look for new ideas for solutions,” Baugh said. “I’m expecting some major problems we’re going to have to deal with, and we’re going to have to work together to get the best (result) that we can for the people.”
Benac replaces longtime commissioner Joe McClash, who served on the commission since 1990. Over the years, McClash earned a reputation of being anti-development and “for the people.” His comments validating concerns raised by residents over various development proposals earned applause and thankful words from constituents, especially in recent years.
“Joe should be proud of the record he has,” Benac said.
However, Benac said McClash, at times, became “adversarial,” a characteristic that drove support from the business community toward her campaign. Benac also noted the county needs to be more proactive in helping the community understand its policies and procedures, long-range plans and other information.
“A lot of times people are confused about (the Comprehensive Plan and other things),” Benac said. “We spend a lot of time focusing on some small issues. We need to deal with the bigger issues. How we grow is one of them.
“I think people honestly don’t give (the county) enough credit,” Benac said. “We’ve accommodated an incredible amount of growth in the last 25 years, and people still want to move here.”
Benac, who took a leave of absence in June from her employer, commercial developer Benderson Development, to focus on the campaign, plans for her part-time commission role to be a full-time commitment.
“I have been involved in government for most of my career,” said Benac, a former Manatee County planner who also has worked in the private sector. “I’ve worked on the inside and the other side of the planning world. My job has always been to make sure development complies with rules and regulations.
“I really think we can do things better,” she said. “We need a long-range vision and, of course, steps to implement that vision.”
Benac said a top priority is to keep the county’s budget in check.
“The county provides a lot of services,” Benac said. “We have to look at those and make sure we’re getting the best (for our) investment.”
Cuts to services may, or may not, be necessary, she said, but the county should try to do things as efficiently as possible and to do its “due diligence.”
Benac also wants to use Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the Northeast, as a lesson for disaster planning for Manatee County. She also said the county needs to tackle financial issues surrounding public safety and emergency medical services head-on in the months ahead.
“It’s wonderful to finally relax a bit, and I look forward to doing the job,” Benac said. “I’m anxious to get started making decisions.”
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].