During an Aug. 13 candidate forum for the District 4 County Commission seat, the three candidates in attendance devoted much of their attention to the one who was not.
Republican Lourdes Ramirez and Democrats Wesley Anne Beggs and Mike Cosentino are all running in hopes of unseating incumbent Republican Al Maio. All three used Maio’s absence at a Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations event as an opportunity to criticize the sitting commissioner’s accountability to the public.
“I think it’s a symptom of a bigger issue,” Beggs said. “I think he is, at least on some level, scared of his constituents — and that’s not a good place for any elected official to be.”
Following the candidate forum at the Sarasota Garden Club, Maio dismissed the suggestion he didn’t attend because he was scared of facing questions from the public. So, why didn’t he go to this particular event?
“I just decided not to,” Maio said. “I’ll leave it at that.”
Maio declined to offer specific commentary on the CONA event. Speaking more generally, though, he said he didn’t see an incentive to attend events hosted by people or groups who have attacked him. Maio’s response echoed similar feedback CONA President Kafi Benz said she has received from candidates who have skipped the group’s events in the past.
During the past two elections, Benz said she’s been told leading Republican candidates believe they can win without being subject to questions they say are driven by her agenda. She said her only agenda is representing neighborhood interests, and although candidates have gone on to win without the group’s support, she doesn’t think bypassing CONA is a good sign for a candidate’s accessibility once they take office.
“That’s justifiable if your objective is simply to get elected,” Benz said. “It isn’t justifiable if you intend to represent the people.”
Maio detailed a long list of events he’s attended during his time in office as evidence he has been engaged with the community since joining the commission in 2014. He estimated he’s met with around 80 community groups during that time. He said he reads every email he gets from a constituent and passes along 15-20 messages a week to another official so the county can take action as quickly as possible.
“The fact I might choose to go not to one or two groups is certainly not indicative of me not wanting to stand in front of the public,” Maio said.
Residents and candidates both used Maio’s voting record to bolster their argument he was not responsive to public input.
On some high-profile issues — including the proposed construction of a construction-materials recycling facility near the Celery Fields and changes to building setback regulations on Siesta Key — residents packed the hall lobbying for one side, but Maio voted the other way.
Ramirez, a Siesta Key resident, said people on the island were particularly concerned about Maio’s vote on the setback issue, because he represents their district.
Maio said he met with residents ahead of that vote on the setback regulations, but his decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and guided by more than just the opinions of those who are in the room during a commission meeting. He pointed out that even a full commission chambers represents a small fraction of the county.
“No matter how I vote or what I say, I’ll annoy somebody,” Maio said.
The candidates characterized Maio as beholden to the interests of developers and donors to his campaign. In rebuttal, Maio listed examples of times he has voted against applications from Benderson Development Co., builder Pat Neal and businessman Jim Gabbert, who Maio acknowledged were “friends and donors.”
“I don’t vote on this strict, ‘Who’s my friends?” and ‘Who gave to my campaign?’” he said.
Although Benz said she believed there is a growing frustration with the commission’s responsiveness to the public, she said the significance of the issue will become clear after the Aug. 28 primary election — an opportunity for voters to signal their stance on the matter.
“They’re the ones that are going to drive it,” Benz said. “It isn’t people like me, and it isn’t people like these candidates. It’s the voters that are important.”