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Sarasota Friday, Mar. 15, 2019 6 months ago

City seeks to disqualify commissioner from GWIZ hearing

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Ahead of a special meeting Saturday challenging the demolition of a bayfront building, city officials say a city commissioner should recuse herself from the vote.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

On Saturday, the City Commission is holding a special meeting to hear an appeal contesting the approved demolition of the former GWIZ building at 1001 Boulevard of the Arts. If city officials get their way, one city commissioner will be sitting out of the discussion.

On Feb. 20, the city filed a motion asking Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch to recuse herself from the appeal hearing. In the motion, Deputy City Attorney Michael Connolly argued Ahearn-Koch’s past advocacy for the preservation of the building would lead “a reasonably prudent person” to believe she has made up her mind on the appeal before the hearing.

In the document, Connelly acknowledges all five commissioners have cast votes on the planned demolition of the bayfront building, making their position on the topic public knowledge. He argued Ahearn-Koch’s support for preservation even after the commission approved the demolition justifies the motion for recusal. 

“It is the advocacy of Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch against the action of her collegial body which leads (the city) to fear it will not obtain a fair and impartial hearing from (Ahearn-Koch),” Connolly wrote in the appeal.

The commission first signaled its support for the demolition in September, when it approved the first phase of The Bay Sarasota’s proposed bayfront master plan in a 3-2 vote. The master plan called for the demolition of the building, with The Bay representatives stating the demand for increased open space and water access vastly outweighed public support for preserving the structure.

Since that vote, a group of preservationists have fought to save the building, originally constructed in 1976 as the Selby Library. Those advocates have argued the building has historic and architectural value — and they have found a sympathetic representative on the commission in Ahearn-Koch.

Ahearn-Koch placed the topic of reconsidering the demolition on the agenda for the Oct. 15 commission meeting. Once again, in a 3-2 vote, the board affirmed its support for demolishing the structure.

In November, Ahearn-Koch taped an episode of the city's Commissioner’s Corner series, a web series in which individual commissioners highlight community issues. Ahearn-Koch’s episode focused on the GWIZ building and featured advocates for preserving the structure.

Ahearn-Koch said the episode, scheduled to air in January, was pulled after a resident filed an appeal challenging the demolition, which city staff approved in December. The appeal said the building is eligible for historic preservation, and as a result, city staff failed to follow the proper procedures for issuing a demolition permit.

Connelly said Ahearn-Koch's involvement in the video — which featured a witness for the appellant and two other individuals who aided in the appeal process — gives reason to believe she would not be an impartial party in Saturday’s hearing. Connelly also cited Ahearn-Koch’s comments in the video as justification for seeking recusal.

On March 11, City Attorney Robert Fournier issued a memo in response to concerns Ahearn-Koch and other community members raised about the motion for recusal. Fournier said Ahearn-Koch alone will decide whether she needs to recuse herself. Fournier said Ahearn-Koch is not accused of any wrongdoing and that she sought his counsel before filming the Commissioner's Corner video, which he said would be permissible.

Fournier said commissioners are allowed to act in advocacy roles on legislative matters, but that ability is limited for quasi-judicial matters, which is the case for the demolition appeal. In quasi-judicial hearings, commissioners are expected to base their decisions on facts and evidence submitted into the record.

If Ahearn-Koch decides not to recuse herself, Fournier said the topic could be raised in an appeal if the demolition is overturned in a 3-2 vote. Still, Fournier reiterated that Ahearn-Koch is free to decide whether her participation in Saturday’s appeal would be appropriate. He added she has an excellent record of compliance with open government and ethics laws.

“Even if a court were to agree with the basis for the motion (to recuse) on appeal, this would only constitute a finding that a commissioner had such conviction as to the historic and architectural value of this structure that it would be too difficult to be entirely objective,” Fournier wrote.

Ahearn-Koch was not immediately available for comment Friday.

The Historic Preservation Board held a meeting to consider the demolition appeal in January. At that hearing, the city successfully sought the recusal of board member Christopher Wilson; the city expressed similar concerns Wilson would not be impartial because of his earlier advocacy for preservation. The board eventually cast a 3-3 vote on the appeal, which meant the challenge to the demolition failed.

The city has filed a second motion for Saturday’s hearing seeking to dismiss the appeal altogether. In that motion, Connelly argued the appellant, resident Edward J. Haas, does not have the standing to challenge the demolition order.

Connelly said a party “must possess a legally recognized right that would be adversely affected by the decision” to challenge a land use decision. Connelly argued Haas, who lives within 500 feet of the site, does not meet that standard.

The agenda for Saturday’s meeting, which contains the full text of both motions, is available on the city’s website.

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