In the June 22 East County Observer, the editors announced that the newspaper would launch a summer-long incorporation series. The goal was to provide residents with enough balanced information for residents to be more educated about the pros and cons of becoming a city. Our group, the Friends of Lakewood Ranch, welcomed that effort with enthusiasm.
To date, the result has been greatly disappointing in that the articles are anything but balanced. In the first article, more than 65% was devoted to the Incorporators’ positions and only 11% to our views. In the second article, more than 54% Incorporators and 19% Friends. After those two installments, the score stood at: Incorporators 60% vs. 16% Friends.
That is not balanced news reporting.
It is especially unfair when the straw vote is only days away.
I was interviewed by an Observer reporter for almost two hours for the second article. Of the information provided to that reporter, only a small fraction was included in the article. Another member of our group, when interviewed by the same reporter for the first article, experienced the same result.
Some of the topics discussed and data provided, but missing from the second article include:
• Loss of local control by showing graphically the impact of CDDs being dissolved and incorporated into significantly larger voting districts, resulting in residents feeling frustrated with remote governance;
• The inability to go back to CDD governance if the city fails, citing specific citations of Florida statutes;
• Projected revenue sources might not materialize, resulting in higher taxes and large deficits;
• Residents’ unhappiness with the influence of builders and large businesses over city council members and zoning boards;
• Residents’ loss of the personal services received today through local CDD supervisors and staff at Town Hall.
In a third article, the East County Observer picked three cities to see how their incorporations compared to Lakewood Ranch. The goal of the article was to examine cities that shared similarities with Lakewood Ranch. The result was an article totally favoring the Incorporators. Somehow the editors couldn’t find a single similar community with positive CDD governance.
Without much effort, we came upon The Villages, a community of more than 80,000 residents located in Central Florida, which is governed by 10 CDDs. Seven of the CDDs, with a population of more than 5,000 residents each, voted overwhelmingly in a formal referendum to reject becoming a city.
The Villages compares favorably to the Ranch. Both are governed through multiple CDDs. Both have excellent relations with and receive good services from county governments. Both enjoy an exceptionally high quality of life and have stable taxes. Dan Hahnfelt, president of the Villages Homeowners Association, stated, “CDDs are vital to the success of the Villages.”
Under the new City Charter, our CDDs would be dissolved.
Despite the fact that The Villages is larger than any of the cities cited and closely approximates Lakewood Ranch, the East County Observer chose to ignore that community. Instead it chose to use three examples that supported incorporation.
For those who like to keep score, after the third article was published, the score was Incorporators at 82% and Friends at 7%. Those percentages are hard to believe, but those are the facts.
Why have the articles been so unbalanced? Is it a case of poor reporting, or is it the bias of the reporter or the editorial staff?
We’ll leave that to readers of the East County Observer to draw their own conclusions.
With such unbalanced reporting, the East County Observer has not achieved its stated goal to educate residents as to both sides of the debate.
The one positive note in this story is the East County Observer’s reversal of an earlier editorial opinion which was critical of the timeliness of our petition drive and questioned the legitimacy of the drive itself. We applaud the editorial staff for its honesty in that case, as well as for allowing us to present our view here.
Bob Hendel, a member of the Friends of Lakewood Ranch, has lived in the Ranch for more than three years.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is what we said at the start: “Each week, we will investigate, analyze and report on a variety of topics regarding incorporation. Our goal is to arm you with enough balanced information for you to know where you stand on this issue.” Lakewood Ranch residents will make their own conclusions whether we accomplished our stated goal. We also said: “We will examine similar Florida cities and what they have learned from their own incorporation processes … Cities whose experience can teach Ranch residents whether becoming a city may be the right choice.” There was no need to report on a community that remains a CDD. Lakewood Ranch residents already know what that is. We addressed the unknown: What happens after you incorporate? That is the question at hand.