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Sarasota Thursday, Apr. 22, 2021 2 weeks ago

Board rejects grant request for Bobby Jones wetlands

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A vocal critic of local government played a key role in denying the request, an outcome city officials described as highly unusual.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

The Southwest Florida Water Management District gave high marks to the city’s plans to build an 18-acre wetland to improve the quality of water discharging into Sarasota Bay.

In its assessment of the project, SWFWMD staff said the project’s treatment of runoff from a 5,800-acre watershed would remove a significant amount of nutrients from water entering the bay.

A report said the project was cost effective and in line with the governor’s directive to prioritize projects that will mitigate harmful algal blooms. Staff deemed the project a high priority for a $1.5 million grant.

That’s why City Manager Marlon Brown was surprised at the outcome of the April 8 meeting of the Southern Region Cooperative Funding Initiative, a SWFWMD subcommittee that evaluates grant proposals from Sarasota and three neighboring counties. The board voted 2-1 to deny the city’s funding request, the lone project rejected of 22 ranked as a medium priority or higher.

When SWFWMD staff asked to advance the city’s project to the full SWFWMD board for further consideration, Southern Region CFI Chair Joel Schleicher declined.

“As highly ranked as we were and having the support of the district staff, what happened today was highly unusual and something I never experienced in my 27 years of public service,” Brown said in an email to city commissioners following the meeting.

A central figure in the outcome of that meeting is a critic of city government. Schleicher is the co-founder of the BEST Plan for Sarasota, founded in 2019 as a nonpartisan advocacy group focused on the city’s government.

The nonprofit has said city officials lack transparency, fiscal responsibility and forward-thinking leadership. Schleicher contributed $50,000 to a now-disbanded political committee under the same name in 2019.

That same year, Schleicher co-authored an opinion piece in the Sarasota Observer advocating to reform city government. The column pointed to such places as Louisville, Kentucky; Nashville, Tennessee; and Jacksonville — where the city and county had consolidated — as a potential solution for issues with city government.

Brown said questions Schleicher raised at the meeting took him by surprise.

“After the fact is when I heard about this individual’s other concerns about the city of Sarasota,” Brown said.

Schleicher said that he saw no reason why his criticism of his local government as a private citizen would affect his ability to serve as a fair arbiter when assessing the merits of the city’s grant application.

He noted that the Southern Region CFI endorsed more than $127 million in future funding at its April 8 meeting, and he said his opposition to the proposal was rooted in a desire to exercise fiscal restraint.

Asked why the city’s $1.5 million request was a tipping point for fiscal restraint — and the lone project ranked as a medium priority or higher to not move forward — Schleicher said he did not believe the city’s plans were firm enough. In its assessment of the application, SWFWMD staff gave the proposal high marks for readiness, stating construction is ready to begin by Dec. 1.

Schleicher said the city’s changing plans for Bobby Jones Golf Club made him question whether the committee truly knew what the property would look like when construction begins. The city has been committed to a 27-hole renovation at Bobby Jones since spring 2020. Commissioners discussed potential revisions to those plans this year but ultimately stood behind its design.

Schleicher said his concerns were also fueled in part by issues with previous city projects, such as Lift Station 87, which took nearly a decade longer to construct and $60 million more than original estimates. Brown noted that project dates to 2008, preceding his hiring as city manager in late 2020.

“Yes, we have a new group of leadership at the city, but the city has historically missed certain deadlines,” Schleicher said.

Schleicher remarked that he might know too much about the Bobby Jones project. After the April 8 meeting, he dismissed the idea that he was judging the city’s proposal on a different standard.

“Do I happen to be closer to a project in Sarasota County than I am in Charlotte County? Yes,” Schleicher said. “But to sit there and say you’re too close to a project and have too much knowledge? That’s nuts.”

Brown said he wanted to explore the city’s options for seeking an alternate resolution to the grant request, but he pledged to move forward with the $3 million project with or without SWFWMD assistance.

“We don’t have to do this project, but the bay belongs to all of us,” Brown said. “Our water belongs to all of us, and we should all do our part.”

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