LAKEWOOD RANCH — Lakewood Ranch residents said they were not convinced they could trust assumptions used to determine whether Lakewood Ranch should incorporate or that the information they are receiving from the Lakewood Ranch Civic Action Forum’s Incorporation Study is unbiased.
More than 150 residents attended the forum’s Incorporation Study Committee’s first public discussion Feb. 24 at Lakewood Ranch Town Hall. At the beginning of the meeting, about half of the attendees said they opposed incorporation, while the other half said they were still undecided.
Residents raised concerns about everything from the number of city council members proposed in the city charter to the credibility of Fishkind & Associates, the company hired to conduct the feasibility study.
Edgewater Cove resident Warren Henderson said the city charter gives too much power to the city council.
The document proposes for the city to have three voting districts and five city council members. Two of the three elected officials would be at-large representatives, which could result in a majority of council members living within the same district at any given time.
“That’s an unwarranted (consolidation) of power,” Henderson said. “I strongly urge you to have more districts.”
Residents all expressed concerns that city council members would not have term limits and that not enough power was being given to the people. They also said there are no assurances the city council would not raise taxes on residents once elected into office — even after forum committee members said an increase in taxes would not be necessary to sustain Lakewood Ranch as a city.
Attendees also questioned in great detail the credibility of the study being conducted by Fishkind & Associates, asking the forum to produce evidence the company’s predictions on incorporation have been accurate in other communities. They also suggested the assumptions used for the study, such as the concept that contracting with the county could result in comparable or less expensive rates for residents, are not well founded.
“Credibility — it is the linchpin of this whole thing,” CDD 2 Supervisor Bob Stepleman said. “He who has the gold sets the rules.”
The ultimate decision of whether Lakewood Ranch will incorporate will rest in the hands of registered voters within the city’s proposed boundaries. However, a large portion of Lakewood Ranch homeowners, primarily snowbirds, would not be able to vote on the issue because they are not registered in the state or may not be in Florida at the time of the vote.
Committee members said the requirement for a vote by registered voters is a state mandate, as are some other provisions in the charter. However, any registered Florida voter within the proposed boundaries would be able to vote by absentee ballot.
Residents also challenged the Civic Action Forum, saying it was presenting biased information on its Web site and advocating for incorporation rather than being a neutral informant.
“It would be easier to rely on the information if we knew we weren’t being sold, but informed,” Henderson said, citing a few examples of responses listed on the forum’s frequently asked questions section that did not distinguish between what was actually true and what the forum believed to be true.
Steve Goldman agreed: “I couldn’t find anything that wasn’t wonderful (on the Web site).”
Forum members admitted they are excited about their findings, which they believe show incorporation is feasible but said they are committed to remaining neutral through the process. The organization will review wording of FAQs on its Web site to clarify issues identified at the meeting.
“I think this was a terrific meeting,” committee Chairman Tom Thomaides said. “We got a lot of very good information. This is going to help us move forward.”
The committee will post all details and assumptions used for the Fishkind analysis once the final study is completed, likely in April.
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• Helen Hagerty of Summerfield Woods: “We were involved in city politics in Miami, and it was very productive. We are still concerned with the feasibility of (incorporating). We’re discovering. Then we will form our judgment.”
• Bill Conerly of Summerfield Lakes: “I’m still undecided. I think there’re a lot of questions that have to be answered. The main concern would be, like everybody, the effect on the taxes. From what I heard, it’s a good idea.”
• Ingrid Seidel of Greenbrook Gardens: “I had read the (documents) and felt it was well presented, but I’m going to go back and research it a little more. I think the meeting made me swing toward (believing) it’s a good thing down the road.”