Former U.S. Rep. Tip O’Neill famously said after his only electoral loss running for the Cambridge City Council that “all politics is local.” It’s why members of the U.S. Congress make sure to bring home the federal pork to their individual districts and hold town hall meetings. And it is why local elections, while often ginning up less coverage and glitzy commentary, are critically important.
Recognizing this, the Sarasota Observer has met with all nine candidates for Sarasota City Commission, finding a group that is as diverse in its views as it is in backgrounds. There are some good candidates for voters, and plenty of mediocre options.
With three of the five seats in contention, and Mayor Kelly Kirschner and long-time Commissioner Fredd Atkins not running for re-election, this becomes a pivotal election.
Here are our recommendations.
This is tricky because the district is a carve-out to ensure a minority sits on the City Commission — regardless of abilities or qualifications. This sort of race-based politics continues to damage our country, our culture and our city.
The blessing and curse of a democracy is we get what we ask for. District 1 voters have seemed to require only one thing of a candidate, and for that they have had weak representation for many years. The district hardly seems the better for it, and we believe voters can do much better for themselves and for the entire city.
Willie Shaw is a retired postal worker who served on the city police oversight panel last year. A lifelong resident of North Sarasota, Shaw is a sincere man, and we applaud anyone willing to run for public office. But his lack of leadership experience and relatively weak grasp of the issues facing the city do not make him the right candidate for the job.
Frederick Williams is a retired attorney living in North Sarasota and has more of a resume. And give the man credit for running for public office at 88 years old. But his age and policies play against him being the best candidate.
That leaves the district with two strong candidates.
One is Linda Holland, a real-estate broker and property manager who is most known for her effective neighborhood activism. She was key in cleaning up Gillespie Park, is president of the Gillespie Park Neighborhood Association, a founding member of the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations and on the city planning board.
Holland says that for there to be real redevelopment and economic growth in North Sarasota, the criminal elements must be cleaned out. Her top issue is the safety of residents, but she connects that with attracting businesses and creating jobs.
She has a great refuse-to-give-up attitude and makes it plain when she knows there is a problem but does not have a solution.
Richard Dorfman is a man of worldwide accomplishment. He was director of broadcasting for the National Basketball Association and has represented some of the world’s biggest sporting events in their worldwide television distribution, including the FIFA World Cup, Wimbledon and the Rugby World Cup.
He was a regular contributor to CNN International and CNBC on sports business stories. He has lived around the world but has been coming to Sarasota since the 1970s before moving here within the past two years.
Dorfman understands the problems the city faces: A constricting tax base and lost jobs. He recognizes that the city desperately needs to create jobs, including along the North Trail that is in his district, and needs to expand the tax base when annexation is not a possibility. To do it means creating a “can-do” mentality in the city, replacing the won’t-do mentality that dominates City Hall and segments of the community.
“Let’s not put up a wall in the face of progress,” he said. “We can’t do things the old way. We need leadership.”
He is about as overqualified for the job as one can get. Voters should jump at the chance to have him represent them on the commission. But he is not a minority and does not always say the right things to please the anti-growth neighborhood advocates along North Trail.
He has no political wet-finger experience, and it shows. But as a city leader, he has the potential to be exceptional — if he can persuade others.
Holland would not be a bad city commissioner, but Dorfman edges her out in a race that will likely go to a runoff.
We recommend Richard Dorfman.
This is the only race featuring an incumbent, Dick Clapp. After four years in office, Clapp has shown strengths — the ability to bring different groups to the table to talk, a grasp of the range of issues facing a city commissioner, patience. He is an amiable man with good intentions.
But his weaknesses have also been on display. He is willing to talk and meet an issue into oblivion. While he has voted for some developments, his bent seems to tilted toward anti-growth. And maybe most of all, he is a central planner at heart, trusting in government to know best what kinds of development should go where down to the tiniest detail. That is not who residents need on the commission.
Most everything that Clapp isn’t, his opponent Paul Caragiulo is. Caragiulo is death on over-intruding government and regulations administered by bureaucrats who have never been on the other side, and essentially he believes in market forces and the city’s need to grow through increased development densities.
Caragiulo has good reason for his vitriolic opposition to government red tape. He and his brothers, owners of Caragiulo’s Italian-American Restaurant downtown, are expanding with new restaurants and have a running battle with city bureaucrats who seem to want to rule on everything down to napkin placement. It is a lament common among business operators in Sarasota, one that Caragiulo gets and Clapp does not.
Caragiulo is broadly in line with our philosophies of individual freedom and responsibility, smaller government and less onerous regulations. He would be a force for reining in sometimes belligerent bureaucrats at City Hall and for pushing changes to boost the city’s economic recovery.
He is willing to support more density for both downtown and other portions of the city where it makes sense. The city either grows or dies, and it cannot grow by annexation, so it needs to grow with densities — which is the byword of those who oppose sprawl. He is for expedited approval processes for new developments, favors an elected mayor and thinks city elections should be moved from March to November with the others.
And he is a “just-do-it” kind of candidate — not one prone to thinking that holding a series of meetings means something has been accomplished. All good.
But any endorsement of him must come with some caveats. Where Clapp is amiable and conciliatory, Caragiulo can be combative; he is not one to promote we all hold hands and sing “kumbaya.” There is a place to be combative, but not if it only serves to alienate those he needs to persuade. Nothing changes if he is on the losing end of 4-1 votes.
His closeness to the police union can be a concern. We are thankful supporters of the thin blue line. But the fact is the police pension is unsustainable and must be renegotiated, or it alone could financially sink the city. Caragiulo said he sees the police pensions different from the other city employee pensions, but he also acknowledged to us all of the cities’ pension plans “unequivocally must be changed.”
We recommend Paul Caragiulo.
There two serious choices for voters in District 3. Pete Theisen — whose first theme for job creation for the city is to subsidize pedicabs — is not one of them. Theisen is an earnest man who does some homework on issues. But he is not up to the job of city commissioner.
The two serious candidates are Diana Hamilton and Shannon Snyder. And in a sense, either of them would make good commissioners.
Hamilton is well-versed on issues, respected in many areas of the community, thinks outside the margins and would be an antidote for government-itis — the condition of lethargy caused by doing things the way they have always been done. And she has shown herself able to make things happen.
Hamilton gets it on the importance of development and growth. While she opposes more 18-story buildings than are already allotted in the downtown plan, she favors increasing densities through the downtown and rest of the city where appropriate. Of course, “where appropriate” is a giant loophole. Yet she seems to recognizes the city must grow and that city government needs to get out of the way so companies and developers can get things done.
Like others, she has a bit of the central planner in her, though. She would “incentivize” more affordable housing downtown by playing with permit fees, impact fees and even taxes.
And she has an inordinately elevated view of the arts, calling the industry “our most important asset” and worth “unbalancing” the city budget. The arts are a critical part of the city’s core, but they are not the end-all.
Snyder knows the issues and people, and knows what he believes and why. He is articulate and persuasive on key issues. The former Sarasota County sheriff deputy sees growing the tax base as the biggest issue facing the city’s future.
It is a huge issue, but a dicey one, because the city is geographically constrained; annexation is not an option with Sarasota County’s utility franchise surrounding the city. “The city has serious financial long-term issues,” he said, and the way out of that is to “motivate the tax base.”
Snyder recommends dumping impact fees altogether. After all, the city is essentially built out, and so most new development is either infill or redevelopment, and the impact is negligible and easily made up from the increased tax base.
The city — both the culture from the commission and the city staff — are an impediment to growth, new development and new business in the city. The city needs to get out of the way of development, and the new commission needs to change the culture. “There is a consensus we need to build,” he said. “We need to put the welcome mat out.”
Snyder does not think downtown needs parking meters. If the city has a parking problem, the parking enforcement program would not be $300,000 in the red. And with the new parking ramp on Palm Avenue and one planned for State Street, parking meters would only be a disincentive.
And he is for shrinking city government everywhere possible, including by outsourcing to the private sector. “If it is in the yellow pages, why aren’t we using them?”
We recommend Shannon Snyder.