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Siesta Key Thursday, Jun. 14, 2012 9 years ago

New candidates converse with CONA

by: Alex Mahadevan News Innovation Editor

The impact on area politics of Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, who will vacate his District 5 seat after this term, was apparent as the public questioned candidates vying for his office on environmental and development issues at the Monday forum sponsored by Sarasota County Coalition of Neighborhood Associations (CONA).

Audience members wrote questions on index cards during the event, which was held at the Sarasota Garden Club, adjacent to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, and participants passed around a microphone to provide answers.

Charles Hines, William Brian Slider and Randy McLendon, all vying for the District 5 County Commission seat currently held by Jon Thaxton, answered questions. Current Commission Chairwoman Christine Robinson defended her District 3 seat against Jennifer Cohen, of North Port.

Questions covered the role of local government in economic development, specifically, monetary incentives provided to attract companies to Sarasota County. The failure of Sanborn Studios, a firm that received a $650,000 grant from the county to relocate, was cited in that question.

Slider said he would push for alternatives to orthodox incentives, like tax credits or grants. “(Sarasota County) needs to think outside of the box,” he said.

All of the candidates said there should be more foresight when choosing companies to support with tax dollars, and Cohen said the county should not overlook small businesses that are already in the area.
“I went to a restaurant the other night, and it was closed the next day,” she said. “It’s sad.”

The five candidates said they support the right for residents to opt-out of smart meters that are being installed by Florida Power & Light this year. But Cohen, who hails from North Port, said sometimes FPL employees can’t reach customers in her city who have power problems because of the rural environment.

Another question touched on the environment, asking candidates if each would be as strong of an environmentalist as Thaxton. None of the participants claimed to match the level of his environmental advocacy, and Robinson said she learned much from Thaxton, remarking, “When he speaks, he always has something important to say.”

McLendon took a philosophical look at most of the questions and voiced his support for some environmental policies on theocratic grounds.

“I believe God expects us to be stewards of this Earth,” he said.

Hines flexed his free-market ideology and explained that he thinks the county should look to the private sector for environmental conversation.

One audience member asked if candidates would support increasing the number of commissioners to seven. “I’ve never seen an issue resolved by throwing more politicians in the mix,” Robinson replied.

Cohen attempted to separate herself from the incumbent Robinson when an audience member asked when the county would revert libraries, and other civil institutions, to their pre-recession hours as the economy recovers.

“We can never have enough libraries in the world,” Cohen said. The manager and professor of Information Technology at Southwest Florida University criticized the policy of cutting library hours, which she said is enjoyed by students and the elderly. Robinson quickly noted that the county received the 2012 Library of the Year Award.

The audience also voiced frustration about planned roundabouts on U.S. 41.

“I think whoever (designed and planned) the roundabouts ought to have their head examined,” McLendon said.

But Hines assured attendees that they were not in for a traffic disruption or confusion. “The traffic does move, you just have to get used to it,” he said. “If you miss (the turn) you just around one more time.”

Vanessa Carusone, formerly a North Port City Commissioner and candidate for the District 5 seat, was not present for the forum.

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