In response to a flurry of negative comments, the Sarasota County commissioners voted 3-2 last week to re-advertise openings on its Sarasota Tree Advisory Council and maintain its Environmental Policy Task Force, instead of combining the two groups into a new Natural Systems Advisory Board.
Commissioners Joe Barbetta and Christine Robinson cast the dissenting votes. They said the county should move on, especially after long-term difficulties in filling the open Tree Council seats.
Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck, who had addressed the commissioners before they voted Oct. 25, said ultimately he was pleased with the vote.
“I was disappointed it was only a 3-2 vote, since it was such a terrible proposal,” he said.
Cathy Antunes, representing Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government, also had protested the creation of the new board.
“I think it was wise of (the commission) to give time (for the Tree Council) to become fully staffed,” she said.
Antunes said the problem with the council’s seats not having been filled was a reflection on former County Administrator Jim Ley’s unwillingness to listen to recommendations from county advisory boards.
In an Oct. 25 memo to the County Commission, John McCarthy, the county’s interim executive director of the Community Services Business Center, wrote that the commission between May 10 and June 7 had “discussed the concept of a new advisory board that would address environmental policy issues using a systems approach. As a part of this concept, the (board) would carry ahead the mission and responsibilities of the existing Sarasota Tree Advisory Council and the Environmental Policy Task Force but would also focus on an expanded suite of ecological planning issues.”
In his public comments Oct. 25, Lobeck said the plan to create the new advisory board put “the integrity of environmental protection in Sarasota County … very much at risk.”
“It is suspicious that this move to abolish the Street Tree Advisory Council came shortly after the council recommended new protections from developers for baby grand trees,” he said. “The developers successfully mobilized against the ordinance as a result of an email campaign by developer Henry Rodriguez. … Clearly, this move is to punish the Street Tree Advisory Council for having the temerity to stand up for trees.”
Barbetta rebuked those accusations.
“There were no nefarious plots to stack this group,” he said. “Because we’re trying to do something right, we get attacked.”
Robinson said the commission had been struggling since May to fill two open slots on STAC. The STAC was designed to have a minimum of eight members and a maximum of 14; it has been operating with six members.
Commission Chairwoman Nora Patterson said one of the STAC members informed her that all the board members had been told the county no longer was accepting applications to fill those vacancies.
“It seems to me they possibly could have found the applicants if somehow this misunderstanding didn’t exist,” Patterson said.
Commissioner Jon Thaxton said he also was disappointed by the poor attendance record of the STAC members.
Still, Thaxton said, “I think we reach too far when we try to combine those two (boards).”
Thaxton made a formal motion that the Environmental Policy Task Force and STAC continue functioning, with the county re-advertising the open STAC seats.
Commissioner Carolyn Mason seconded Thaxton’s motion, saying she saw her action as an opportunity to tell people interested in the work of the STAC “to put up or shut up.” If new members did not come forth, she said, the commission would have no option but to create the new advisory board.
“I can’t support this solution to the problem,” Robinson said. “This isn’t working for us right now. … We just keep shoving it down the road.”
“I agree with Christine,” Barbetta said. “All we’re doing is postponing … because we’re afraid to make a decision.”
Thaxton said although he was sympathetic to Robinson’s view, he couldn’t agree with her Oct. 25.
“I may be there in a few weeks,” he said.
Board proposed to balance views
A staff memo prepared for the Sarasota County Commission said the creation of a new Natural Systems Advisory Board would provide “a parallel body to the Development Services Advisory Committee … with these groups representing two major facets of our community design, the built and natural environments.”
The NSAB “would have the purview of examining issues related to ecosystem services, such as wildlife habitat, tree canopy, air and water quality, flood control and stormwater management, ecotourism and recreation opportunities, open space and green corridors (and) enhanced health outcomes … that improve the quality of life,” the memo said.
The board also would provide an opportunity for the County Commission “to receive direct community feedback on a broad range of emerging natural systems issues and planning initiatives,” the memo added.