Who’s running in the Sarasota City Commission election?
With two seats up for grabs in March, citizens are beginning to step forward in pursuit of a spot on the commission.
| 6:00 a.m. December 1, 2016
Three candidates are already in. One incumbent is out.
There’s still more than three months until the March 14 City Commission election — and more than five weeks until the Jan. 13 deadline for candidates to file — but the race for two citywide at-large seats on the board is beginning to intensify.
Here’s an early examination of the contenders who have already emerged and the issues that will likely be at the center of next year’s race.
Jennifer Ahearn-Koch Neighborhood leader and business owner
After 15 years of civic engagement, Jennifer Ahearn-Koch wants to take her involvement with local government to the next level.
Ahearn-Koch, president of the Tahiti Park Neighborhood Association, filed paperwork Monday to run in next year’s City Commission election. She has been an outspoken neighborhood leader, also serving on the executive board of Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations and the steering committee of the resident activist group STOP.
Her experience includes six years on the city’s Planning Board, as well. As she prepares to campaign for a spot on the City Commission, Ahearn-Koch wanted voters to see her as more than just a neighborhood advocate. Having worked as a public relations professional in the city for the past 20 years, she said she was attuned to the needs of businesses as well as residents.
Ahearn-Koch rattled off a list of major issues she would like to focus on as a commissioner, but big-picture planning served as a unifying theme for many of those subjects. She said she wants city officials to consider a long-term view of how Sarasota is affected by decisions being made today.
“It’s about the city transitioning,” Ahearn-Koch said. “It’s not what it was, and it never will be what it was. But I have children, and I would love to see them come back here. I want it to be a city they want to come back to.”
Martin Hyde Small business owner
Martin Hyde is banking on there being discontent with the status quo at City Hall.
Ask him why he decided to run, and he rattles off a series of issues — from homelessness to finances to paid parking to downtown events — he believes the commission is mishandling. He raises criticisms of City Manager Tom Barwin, sitting commissioners and potential candidates for office.
The first candidate to enter the City Commission race, Hyde is aware his beliefs might earn him a label like “rabble-rouser.” But he said his approach is built on a foundation of common sense, and that it will connect with voters in March.
He thinks the city needs to embrace the fact it’s growing to evolve productively. That means a change in direction is necessary, he says, to make Sarasota a city able to retain and attract businesses and young professionals.
“I’m standing up and saying what I believe any parent would say,” he said. “I’m standing up and saying what any pragmatic businessperson would say.”
He is embracing the role of outsider. The small business owner is somewhat taken aback by the suggestion that voters might think negatively of someone with no political experience.
“Why would you want someone with no experience in government?” Hyde asked. “The question is, why the bloody hell wouldn’t you?”
Susan Chapman City commissioner
On Monday, Susan Chapman was uncertain if she would run for a second term on the City Commission.
On Wednesday, she filed paperwork at City Hall to enter the race, positioning her as the only incumbent in the March election.
Chapman said her decision was based on the desire to continue voicing residents’ concerns as the city considers forthcoming issues such as the form-based zoning code and the effort to combat homelessness.
“I feel a strong sense of obligation to represent my constituents,” she said.
During her time on the board, Chapman has been an outspoken commissioner. Those critical of her views — which tend to focus on neighborhood interests over development — have often painted her as the avatar of what’s wrong with local government.
Chapman said the personal attacks took a toll on her desire to pursue another term. So did a lawsuit filed by the group Citizens for Sunshine, which led to a judge declaring she did not violate the state Sunshine Law.
“I have a long, long record of civic engagement in this city on behalf of the public,” she said. “I didn’t expect to be vilified the way I have been.”
And yet, those attacks have not made Chapman any less outspoken regarding issues she feels strongly about. She believes she’s been positively influencing the direction of the board, and that she’s been responsive to the desires of her constituents.
As a result, Chapman is unwilling to walk away just yet.
“I have a lot of institutional knowledge,” she said. “That’s the part that makes it hard to say I should just throw in the towel and forget about it.”
Who’s on the fence?
Patrick Gannon Planning Board member and neighborhood leader
Does Patrick Gannon plan to enter the race for the two at-large seats on the City Commission?
“I am not currently a candidate for those positions at this time,” Gannon said.
Well, is he at least considering becoming a candidate right now?
“I have been asked and approached, but I have made no decision,” he said.
Gannon may be publicly noncommittal about his personal involvement in the race, but the Planning Board member is willing to share his thoughts on the major issues the next commission will have to address.
He brings up multimodal transportation — a hot topic after a split commission rejected a series of staff-recommended transportation policies at a Nov. 21 meeting. Gannon, also president of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, spoke in support of the staff recommendations on behalf of that organization.
He said the next commission would have to deal with that issue more productively. He said the same was true for other big topics scheduled for consideration, including homelessness and the forthcoming form-based zoning code.
“Right now, controversial issues seem to come up and don’t seem to get dealt with in a productive manner,” he said.
Whoever fills the two at-large commission seats should be committed to working harmoniously with staff to get things done, Gannon said.
“Proposing headline-grabbing solutions is not the way to deal with very complex issues, and running a government is a very complex issue,” he said.
Nora Patterson Former city and county commissioner
Just months after running for a state Senate seat, would former Mayor Nora Patterson really launch another campaign to return to the City Commission?
She admits she’s given the move some consideration, but says not to expect her name on the ballot when March rolls around.
“I love the city and want to see it running as well as it possibly could be,” Patterson said. “Right now, I’m sort of enjoying not being in the limelight.”
Still, she’s not ruling out a run entirely. Even as she’s plotted a run for state office, she’s remained a city resident focused on the machinations of local government. The state of city finances, in particular, serves as a topic of concern for her.
“I know that it’s very tempting, when you’re in office, to look at some very grand and wonderful plans, but there are long-term issues there, financially, with the city,” she said.
Patterson has spoken with some prospective candidates and is considering whether to throw her support behind any of them. Although only two candidates have officially filed, she was confident that a robust field would form and save her the hassle of having to enter the race.
“I toyed with it, and I think that if we have decent people to run — and we probably will — there’s an awful lot of intelligent people concerned with the future of the city who can do the job,” she said.
Suzanne Atwell City commissioner
After eight years of service on the City Commission, Suzanne Atwell’s announcement Tuesday that she would not seek another term on the board took even close followers of City Hall by surprise.
Still, Atwell said the decision not to run again wasn’t a particularly agonizing one.
“I think it was fairly easy, because I think it was time,” Atwell said.
Atwell attributed her choice to frustration with the direction of city government. She referenced what she saw as a disturbing trend: The commission, at the behest of a small group of outspoken citizens, has overruled the recommendations of city staff on multiple occasions.
“Single issue activists kind of take over and become the self-appointed experts,” Atwell said.
The decisions Atwell cited came down to a 3-2 vote, with Atwell and Commissioner Liz Alpert voting in the minority. Atwell acknowledged the possibility that a new commission might swing in a different direction, but she said there was also a chance she would not even win re-election if she ran again.
“That’s a burden I’m not sure I want to risk right now,” she said. “That’s casting your fate to the wind.”
Atwell, who served as mayor from 2011 to 2013, pledged to stay involve in city affairs — though she did not know what exactly that might entail.
“I need to put my knowledge, my experience and my political acumen toward something else now,” she said.