Add the St. Armands Circle Business Improvement District (BID) to a growing list of city commissioners or city-affiliated groups being targeted for Sunshine Law violations at Sarasota City Hall.
At the BID’s monthly meeting Tuesday at City Hall, BID organizer and chairman Marty Rappaport announced that he and his directors are now being “targeted” as part of a public records request.
Citizens for Sunshine attorney Andrea Mogensen, through a letter received from attorney Michael Barfield, is looking for any email on private or personal email accounts from BID directors containing the words “restaurant,” “retail,” “Business Improvement District” or “Bob Gibbs.” Barfield also wants any email sent from BID directors to St. Armands Circle Association Executive Director Diana Corrigan. Corrigan, though, is not under the Sunshine Law through her affiliation with the BID.
The records request, which involves rifling through Rappaport’s personal computer and most likely the computers of other BID directors, was prompted after the BID and the Downtown Improvement District (DID) met jointly Oct. 8 to revisit the possibility of limiting the space restaurants occupy on the Circle and in downtown Sarasota.
Rappaport mentioned that the BID hired hired urban retail planner Robert Gibbs to study St. Armands Circle in 2005 at that Oct. 8 meeting, noting that Gibbs praised the Circle as a shopping destination, but warned retail tenants were being overshadowed by restaurants.
After that study was conducted, the BID suggested restricting restaurants from occupying the first floor of buildings; that effort was unsuccessful. Rappaport thinks the problem has only worsened since then. He estimated that 55% of the retail space on the Circle was used for food or food-related purposes, up 10% since 2005.
Even though city attorneys warned there were a host of legal issues involved with restricting land use, Rappaport said it was a cause worth pursuing.
“If downtown or St. Armands turns into a giant food court, they’re going to lose their vibrancy,” Rappaport said on Oct. 8.
Members of both boards agreed, voting to put out a request for proposal that would bring in a consultant like Gibbs to investigate whether the number of restaurants within the BID and DID was problematic.
Rappaport noted Tuesday that his mentioning of Gibbs on Oct. 8 did not mean he was pushing for the BID and the DID to hire him again. Rappaport also told city purchasing manager Mary Tucker weeks ago in an email he would not be a part of any selection committee that hired a consultant to perform the work to avoid any conflict.
Rappaport and others expressed concern and frustration with the public records request Tuesday.
“I’m not concerned about being out of the Sunshine in any way,” Rappaport said.
What’s concerning and frustrating to Rappaport and other city volunteers is they are being forced to turn over personal computers because their personal emails have been used in the past to conduct business. Even if city employees send a notice of a meeting to BID directors, their personal computers must be scanned.
Volunteers also expressed concern with they perceive as a frustrating city email policy, which forces them to use their personal accounts to get anything done in a reasonable amount of time.
Rappaport noted that he’s worked for the BID for 23 years without pay and he’s considering stepping down over this matter, depending on how the process plays out.
“I’ve spent years volunteering and dedicating my time to the city and now find myself in the position of having someone trying to extort money while looking through my personal computer,” Rappaport said. “If you volunteer for this city, you’re at risk. If need be, I’ll resign because my time is too valuable and the exposure is too great.”
At a special Sarasota City Commission meeting Nov. 7, the City Commission approved a second settlement offer in response to an ongoing lawsuit that will acknowledge the city violated the state’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law for an undisclosed amount.
“Unless something is done and the city takes a stand, the city is putting themselves open for lawsuit after lawsuit,” Rappaport said. “These minor claims can cost thousands of dollars and they’re driving volunteers like me from wanting to participate in the process any longer.”
Contact Kurt Schultheis at [email protected].