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Joe on the Go: The final push -- and does it really matter?

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  • | 5:57 a.m. May 10, 2013
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With less than a week remaining in the hotly-contested campaign for the two at-large Sarasota City Commission seats, the debate between candidate supporters is running at a fever pitch, with emails flying, online debates raging and allegations of campaign improprieties contributing to the last-minute political maneuvering leading up to the May 14 city election that will determine the two winners of the three-way race between Richard Dorfman, Suzanne Atwell and Susan Chapman.

While Mayor Atwell is trying to buck a recent trend of incumbent city commissioners being rejected by city voters, Chapman and Dorfman hope to enter the gilded cage of city politics---with the final results expected by 8 p.m. Tuesday night.

On election night, Mayor Atwell and her supporters will gather at the Blue Rooster. Richard Dorfman and his supporters will gather at Patrick’s and Susan Chapman and her supporters will be at Word of Mouth. Two of the three gatherings will be festive, celebratory events and one will be a somber, reflective and shorter-lived affair.

This race is expected to be close and I don’t think anyone knows who the two winners will be. In the end, it may come down to how many people “bullet-vote,” casting only a single vote for their most-preferred candidate instead of using both allotted votes and voting for their top two choices. There is a school of thought suggesting that Chapman supporters will not cast a second vote for Dorfman and vice versa, so Atwell, by default, would garner the most secondary votes in addition to votes from her own loyal supporters.

If the majority of voters bullet-vote, the passionate and partisan support generated by the Dorfman and Chapman campaigns may be too much to overcome for the “centrist” Atwell campaign that seems to have generated less passion than the other two campaigns.

I personally believe that a Chapman victory would provide the commission with a progressive voice, a greater sense of checks and balances and greater neighborhood representation---and it would be interesting to see how she and Commissioner Paul Caragiulo function on the same commission, because there is no love lost between the two longtime city residents.

Some fear that victories by Atwell and Dorfman (both of whom are considered to be “developer-friendly”) would create a three-vote “alliance” with Commissioner Caragiulo, who shares many of their same political philosophies.

Those who support Chapman are concerned that the aforementioned “alliance” would lead to “rubber-stamped,” predetermined decisions coming out of City Hall---especially when they pertain to development proposals. Supporters of Atwell and Dorfman would argue that having three like-minded commissioners on a five-person commission would create a more business-friendly environment, lead to more downtown growth and result in a commission less prone to gridlock.

Most city commission decisions require a three-person majority vote to enact new policy or undo current policy, with some of the larger decisions (such as hiring a new city manager) requiring a four-person super majority.

However this all turns out, we should commend the three candidates for caring enough about their city to subject themselves to the public scrutiny associated with being a candidate or a commissioner.

Does It Really Matter?

I first delved into community journalism and began paying attention to city commission issues in the mid-2000s while living in the Orlando area. I briefly held the naïve belief that local politics and local governments could, and should, provide an opportunity for engaged citizens to bring out the best in their community. I now wonder if these political differences don’t bring out the worst in us, especially during election season.

A government of neighbors elected by fellow neighbors should provide an opportunity to affect positive change and resolve local issues free of the gridlock and restraints that stymie productivity at the higher political levels, but that’s probably utopian thinking on my behalf.

I’ve often told friends who pay little attention to local politics that the decisions made inside City Hall have more impact on their lives than decisions made in Tallahassee or Washington, D.C. City commissioners decide what type of development and business operations are allowed at a given location, what kind of improvements can be made to your home and what type of activities are allowed on your property. City commissioners decide what type of road runs through your neighborhood, where you’re allowed to park and whether you will pay for those parking privileges. City commissioners determine how late and how loud your favorite band plays at your favorite local bar and whether you need to have your dog on a leash when visiting a city park.

On a larger level, city commissioners determine the level of police protection afforded citizens and the the costs and pension liabilities associated with those protections. Commissioners oversee a $176 million city budget and have to deal with complex social and economic issues such as homelessness, poverty, crime, job creation and infrastructure.

On the surface, this local control seems vitally important, but with each passing election local politics looks more and more like the special-interest, party-affiliated politics taking place at the county, state and federal levels. City commission candidates are spending more money on their campaigns, making the candidates more reliant on campaign contributors and more beholden to those who help put them in office.

We who follow local politics bemoan the fact that so few people participate in the city elections. In March, only 6,153 of the city of Sarasota’s 35,480 registered voters felt it was worth their time and trouble to vote in an election that whittled the field of six candidates down to the final three we have now.

For those of us who think local elections are important, it seems strange that a citizen of the city would not want a say in who determines city policy. But when we take into account the negativity associated with the campaigns, the philosophical bickering among supporters (some of it mean-spirited) and the political gamesmanship employed by behind-the-scenes power brokers, it should come as no surprise that 83 percent of the voters say “no thanks” on election day.

Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” has become a convoluted affair more akin to a bitter sports rivalry or a WWF wrestling match than any civic-minded attempt at local leadership. I used to think non-voters were apathetic and just didn’t give a damn about the minutiae of city government, but I now wonder if the non-voters and uninterested parties aren’t the wisest among us?

Instead of polluting their lives with political infighting and special interest debates, the “83 percent”  simply ignore the activities taking place in and around City Hall and save the precious space inside their personal “bubbles” (my wife’s term) for family, friends, personal pursuits and self-growth. One could argue that local politics still leaves room for social nobility, but one could also argue that local politics is just a bunch of meaningless crap conducted by people consumed by self-interest and the interests of their friends and business associates.

I’ve spent time with each of the three current commission candidates and each strikes me as a basically decent, fairly intelligent person---some more than others. None of the candidates are as inherently wicked as their detractors would lead us to believe, and none of the candidates are as wonderful as their supporters proclaim. Like the rest of us, these are partially flawed human beings that fall somewhere between the two extremes.

When the city elections are behind us, I can see myself heading in one of two drastically different directions. I might distance myself from city politics and City Hall (except for the plight of the homeless) and concentrate my journalistic endeavors on those operating outside the realm of political folly.

Or, I might tack the other way and make a grassroots run at a city commission seat in 2015 in an attempt to throw myself headlong into the belly of the beast---two scenarios that leave me wondering which extreme is crazier: ignoring local politics altogether or going all in?

(The political fliers below arrived in my email earlier this week ... part of the final push for campaign support)


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