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The Observer's 2020 general election recommendations

Here are some insights and opinions to consider on the region’s candidates.

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  • | 7:00 a.m. October 20, 2020
  • Sarasota
  • Opinion
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Florida Senate, House 

One of the historical political realities of Sarasota and Manatee counties is the two counties are Republican strongholds — especially Manatee.

Rare has been the Democratic candidate who has won a seat in the U.S. Congress, the Florida Senate or Florida House of Representatives from this region.

Oh, it has been done. Shirley Brown, a Democrat and longtime Sarasota County School Board member, won the District 69 Florida House seat in 1992 and held it until term limits capped her in 2000. Keith Fitzgerald, a political science professor at New College, won the same House seat in 2006 and 2008. And Democrat Margaret Good won the District 72 House seat in 2018. 

But that’s about it. 

And it doesn’t look like the Republican stronghold at the state and federal level in the two-county region is going to change this election cycle.

Nor should it. 

The incumbents running for reelection — in particular Florida Sen. Joe Gruters and Florida Reps. Tommy Gregory and Will Robinson — have represented the region well and have earned voters’ trust and support to retain their seats. 

You can say the same about Republican Florida Senate District 21 candidate, Jim Boyd. Boyd is running to fill the Senate seat of term-limited Senate President Bill Galvano. Boyd served in the House with distinction from 2010-2018. For the past two years or more, Boyd has been seen as the deserved successor to Galvano.

The one state race that can be considered competitive is the one for Good’s House District 72 seat. Good opted this cycle to challenge Republican Congressman Vern Buchanan. The contest for her seat pits first-time office seekers, Republican Fiona McFarland, daughter of nationally known Republican K.T. McFarland, and longtime Sarasota lawyer, Democrat Drake Buckman. 

When we compare how these two candidates line up on the issues, longtime Observer readers would expect us to support  Republican McFarland. For good reason. Compared to Buckman, McFarland’s political philosophy is far more in sync with our freedom and limited government philosophy than Buckman’s.

Indeed, Buckman, in our view, embraces traditional progressive statism on key issues we reject: He supports a $15 minimum wage; he is opposed to privately run charter schools, favoring restrictions on school choice; and he says health care is a right and wants to expand Medicaid funding. These are all stances favoring greater government control over people’s lives and less liberty.

If you step back and analyze the elections at the state and federal levels, they, more than local government elections, can be framed as follows: Which candidates favor the rights of the individual over the group versus  which favor the group over the individual? Which is superior: Individuals’ right to their own lives, or  the individual subservient to the group?

We’ll take the former and the candidates who align closest to the individuals’ right to their own life.

We recommend: Jim Boyd, Joe Gruters, Will Robinson, Fiona McFarland, Tommy Gregory, James Buchanan



County Commission, District 3: Kevin Van Ostenbridge, Republican; Matt Bower, Non-Party Affiliate

We’re sorry to see Manatee County Commissioner Stephen Jonsson deciding four years is enough. He was a stalwart of fiscal sanity.

But now Jonsson says it’s time for a younger generation.

Among those aspiring young leaders are two Republicans, Kevin Van Ostenbridge and Matt Bower — though Bower is running as a Non-Party Affiliate.

Both lifelong Manatee residents, they have extensive resumes of involvement in civic and service organizations and local government — Bower, a member of the Manatee Planning Commission, and Ostenbridge, a member of the Bradenton Planning Commission.

They’re business people: Bower is a financial adviser with Edward Jones; Ostenbridge is a Realtor at Boyd Realty and founder of Be Easy Tours.

If you compare them side by side, you’d have to say Manatee voters have two candidates who would serve them well. They both recognize Manatee’s infrastructure and water-quality issues. But here’s the difference:

Bower is in the camp of those who like to blame Manatee’s ills on developers. He uses the term “irresponsible growth” and vows that because he hasn’t accepted contributions from developers, he will be free of developer influence.

That plays well with the large contingent of no-growth advocates.

Ostenbridge’s campaign, on the other hand, is heavily financed by developers, which says he embraces a reality that many voters reject. And that is: 

Population growth will continue in Manatee, and as it does, more housing development will be required. Ostenbridge recognizes that population growth is actually a benefit to the community. It means more jobs, more opportunities for higher personal income and more and better choices for consumers.

And although some might see the following as typical candidate rhetoric, Ostenbridge has vowed: “I will not vote to raise your taxes.”

On which of these two better embraces free enterprise, fiscal government restraint and limited government, Ostenbridge has the edge.

We recommend: Kevin Van Ostenbridge


School Board, District 3: Dave “Watchdog” Miner; Mary Foreman

Incumbent two-term school board member Dave “Watchdog” Miner is seeking his third term and is in a run-off election against Mary Foreman.

In the primary, we recommended Foreman, a CPA, noting that Foreman would bring much needed financial expertise to the board. We’ll repeat: 

“Mary Foreman is the standout. … Those regularly involved in the school board see Foreman attending almost every meeting; she has been a member of the district’s Audit Committee since its formation in 2013, including serving as chair. And she is a regular attendee at all of the district’s Citizens Financial Oversight Committee meetings.

“No one knows more about the Manatee School District’s finances than Mary Foreman. Taxpayers need her on the board.”

Miner has served his community well, but the board needs Foreman’s expertise.

We recommend: Mary Foreman


Bond Referendum: Water Quality Protection, Fish & Wildlife Habitat Preservation and Park Ad Valorem Tax and Bonds

To finance the acquisition, improvement and management of land to protect drinking water sources and water quality, preserve fish and wildlife habitat, prevent stormwater runoff pollution and provide parks, shall Manatee County levy an additional 0.15 mill ad valorem tax and issue general obligation bonds in a total principal amount not exceeding $50,000,000, maturing within 20 years, bearing interest not exceeding the legal rate, payable from such ad valorem taxes, with annual public audits?

Voters typically have a weakness for ballot questions that propose new taxes to preserve the environment, improve water quality and provide parks. This one is no different. 

Hey, what’s 0.15 mills? Just a tiny property tax, right?

But it’s not needed. If you understand financial statements, Manatee County is holding a mountain of taxpayer money in the bank. As of the end of 2019, the county reported:

Assets: $1.68 billion, including $533.3 million in cash.

Liabilities: $515 million, with only $97 million of that current liabilities.

The difference: $1.17 billion in net assets.

Manatee already suffers from having higher property taxes than its neighbor in Sarasota County. It doesn’t need to make things worse. There is no need for the county to borrow another $50 million.

We recommend: No



Bond Referendum: Economic Development Ad Valorem (Property) Tax Exemptions

Shall the Board of County Commissioners of Sarasota County be authorized to grant, pursuant to s.3, Article VII of the State Constitution, property tax exemptions to new businesses and expansions of existing businesses that are expected to create new, full-time jobs in the county?

Representatives of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County often invoke this argument: To be competitive in Florida and the U.S., Sarasota needs the ability to offer tax incentives to attract and keep business.

With all due respect, we’ve never bought into that. We have always opposed any kind of government subsidies. We oppose all unearned benefits given to one special group at the expense of others.

The best way to compete economically is to establish a government framework that consists of low taxation and regulation and embraces free-market capitalism.

We recommend: No



One of the political anomalies and oddities of Sarasota and Manatee counties is how Democratic Party candidates have ruled the Sarasota City Commission in the midst of a two-county Republican stronghold.

All of the current sitting city commissioners are Democrats — Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch, Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie, Liz Alpert, Willie Shaw and Hagen Brody.

Such party affiliation isn’t supposed to matter on the City Commission. Commission elections are supposed to be nonpartisan. 

But we can’t help but contrast the results — particularly the financial results — of the city of Sarasota with those of Sarasota County, whose commissioners are all Republicans. One yardstick: 

  • Unfunded pension liabilities. The city’s unfunded liabilities totaled $134.19 million at the end of 2019, or $2,367 per resident. In contrast, the county’s unfunded pension liabilities, while larger at $391.79 million, translate to $919 per county resident.

And if you look back at some of the controversies that surfaced in recent years, the city of Sarasota has had some financial lulus — the $20 million plan to renovate Bobby Jones Golf Club and the $87 million lift station.

We could go on and on about City Commission miscues — traffic control during season, personnel issues inside City Hall, rejection of Selby Gardens’ plans, a new parks tax, parking meters, etc.

The point, as we have often said, is Sarasota city government is and has been starved for competent leadership — on the commission and inside City Hall.

With this election, that could change. The three City Commission races offer city residents the opportunity to create a new majority that could move the city forward and help it reach its potential to be greater than it is.

District 1: Incumbent Commissioner Willie Shaw; Kyle Scott Battie.

Let’s be blunt: Shaw is an obstructionist to economic growth and has been a member of the majority in overseeing the city’s financial mismanagement. 

Rarely does Shaw offer positive, creative or constructive ideas, and he is seemingly obsessed with casting every issue in racial terms — how Sarasota’s black residents are always slighted, left out or victimized.

Shaw’s district residents — and city residents in general — will be far better off having a commissioner with a new, positive, enthusiastic, energetic voice and outlook. Although Battie might be inexperienced in the political arena, he will bring to the commission the DNA and work ethic of his family name — that of his mother, a former longtime school teacher, and his entrepreneur father, proprietor of the 30-year-old Cravats’ Custom Clothiers.

District 2: Incumbent Commissioner Liz Alpert; former Commissioner Terry Turner

This race is a dichotomy.

Alpert understands and favors economic growth and was on the side of projects that would move the city forward (e.g., Selby Gardens, the late Harvey Vengroff’s affordable apartments, redevelopment of Bath & Racquet, supporting the move of the Sarasota Orchestra to Payne Park, to name a few). And although she opposed wasting taxpayers dollars on renovating Bobby Jones Golf Club, overall Alpert hasn’t been strong or persuasive enough on fiscal management.

Turner, the former city commissioner from 2009-2013 and a former Bank of America corporate treasurer and managing director at Bankers Trust, has the financial acumen sorely needed on the commission. 

But Turner has aligned himself with the anti-growth, Old Guard forces that oppose Selby Gardens’ plans and want to increase regulatory constraints on downtown development.

We always grimace whenever we hear anyone running for elected office invoke the word “over-development,” as Turner has. And as we said prior to the primary, rare is it good to go back. Turner had his turn.

Alpert has the right instincts; she needs to stand stronger.

District 3: Erik Arroyo; Dan Clermont

For many years, we have encouraged the next generation to take on leadership roles in the city, in particular as city commissioners. Voters have that with 30-year-old Sarasota lawyer Erik Arroyo.

You have to love and encourage Arroyo’s enthusiasm and desire to make a difference. But the reality is, as they say: Timing is indeed everything. Arroyo is not ready yet. His opponent, Dan Clermont, is.

It’s rare for us to recommend any Democrat (Clermont) over a Republican (Arroyo), but Clermont has the business and leadership experience needed on the commission.

He’s a successful entrepreneur, having started, operated and sold multiple businesses while living in Green Bay, Wis., and now operating his real estate management firm in Sarasota.

He knows what it takes to be fiscally responsible. And when you talk to Clermont, 56, you quickly see he has a strong grasp of what needs fixing at City Hall and on the City Commission. He would be the advocate and watchdog city taxpayers need.

We recommend: Kyle Scott Battie, Liz Alpert and Dan Clermont.



Sarasota County voters adopted the first charter 49 years ago, in November 1971.  Nine years later, voters repealed the charter and adopted a new one.

Since that time, voters have amended the charter in 19 subsequent elections.

Overseeing one avenue of the amendment process is the Charter Review Board. Its job, according to the charter, is to “review and recommend changes to the charter for improvement of county government.”

Proposed changes can come from Charter Review Board members or the public. From there, the idea wends its way through a thorough review process. If it survives scrutiny, two-thirds of the board must approve sending it to the County Commission, which ultimately has the authority to place any proposals on the county ballot.

Over the decades — as evidenced by how infrequently voters have changed the charter — a decisive majority of Charter Review Board members have adopted the philosophy of “if it is not broken, don’t fix it,” or, to use the medical profession’s code: “Do no harm.”

In other words, Charter Review Board members historically have been careful not to mess with the charter without a convincing need. And for good reason: Sarasota County government is regarded as one of the best-run, best-functioning governments in Florida.

Likewise, most Charter Review Board members do not see their role as legislators or as activists whose job is tilt the charter to their political agendas.

That certainly is not the case when you hear or review the platforms of four of the five  Democratic Party candidates on the ballot for the Charter Review Board. They clearly have expressed two themes:

They want the Charter Review Board to be far more active in changing the charter, in effect using their seats to legislate. And they want the board to exert powers, as they say, to  “protect” the environment and control development.

Their approach would be akin to appointing activist judges who legislate from the bench. Consider these four races:


District 1: Kennedy Legler, Republican; Krista Lohr, Democrat

In the Observer’s candidate questionnaire, Legler, grandson of the late Longboat Key Mayor Ken Legler, wrote that his No. 1 priority if elected would be “protect the charter. … I do not see the need for any immediate change to the charter.”

Lohr, who is running for a seat a second time, says: “The CRB is currently lacking an advocate for the people of Sarasota and Sarasota County’s environment, and I will be that advocate if elected to the CRB. I would like to see the CRB take a more active role in community outreach and educating the public about the charter and the CRB.”

Lohr is chair of the Manatee-Sarasota Sierra Club Group and vice chair of the Environmental Caucus of Sarasota County Democrats.


District 2: Ray Collins, Republican; Doreen Dupont, Democrat

Collins told the Observer: “My priorities would be simple: to protect the charter from special interests, listen to the people and serve the county. … I don’t think the board should play a pro-active role. The board should respond to citizens who want their issues heard.”

Dupont: “I would like to focus on our environment and direction of our development. … [T]here should be mention of conservation of our environment inserted into our charter. … We must safeguard and conserve our natural beauty and resources.

“Further, I would like the threshold for land-use increases in density and intensity to be raised to a unanimous vote [by the County Commission], except for infrastructure and outdoor recreational facilities.”

Dupont is a board member of the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida and chair of activism of the Environmental Caucus of Sarasota County Democrats, and she notes, in March 2019, she “trained with Al Gore to be in his Climate Reality Leader Leadership Corps.”


District 3: David Samuel, Republican (current CRB member); Mary Ellen Palermo, Democrat

Samuel’s priorities: “Listen with an open mind. Evaluate proposed changes by following established guidelines outlined in the charter.” He says the CRB should do what the charter proscribes: “review and propose changes” that are presented by citizens or the board.

Palermo, in contrast, told the Observer: “Developers have a strong voice in our county government. I want to give residents a strong voice. … [O]ur environment needs priority.

“The Charter Review Board is a great opportunity to be resident advocates with recommended reforms.”

Asked what needs to be changed in the charter, Palermo says: “[It] needs to have an environmental referendum that addresses our waters, wetlands, conservation and open space — and abide by it.”


District 5: Elaine Miller, Republican; Anthony “Tony” Dunbar, Democrat

Miller is the founder and owner of 15-year-old Suncoast Architect Inc. in Englewood, which was recognized in 2019 as the Englewood Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year. She has been an architect for 30 years.

A first-time candidate for countywide office, Miller says on the voter guide: “I value the continuity of today’s charter policies and procedures. … At this time, I do not have intended changes I would like to make.”

Dunbar, a retired New Orleans lawyer, wants the Charter Review Board to be more active. He states: “I favor close scrutiny of proposals that would increase population density in any district, and I favor advancing proposals from citizens that would protect the environment by limiting development.”

Dunbar, a member of the board of the Englewood Democratic Club, has the endorsement of Englewood Indivisible, an organization that describes Dunbar as “an activist and a leader among activists, currently working hard to elect the whole Democratic ticket.”

Englewood Indivisible describes itself as a “multipartisan group of more than 600 residents resisting the Trump agenda.” At recent rallies, its members carried banners saying: “Tax the rich,” “Trump is the national emergency” and “It’s time for an economy that works for everyone.”

If these four professed activists are elected, they won’t have a majority, but they will have shifted the board toward a long-sought goal of Sarasota County no-growth and environmental constituents to that of agenda-driven activism, wiping out  the successful “do no harm” philosophy that has fostered for the past 40 years one of the best functioning governments in Florida.

When you vote, do no harm.



We repeat this every cycle: One of the primary purposes of elections is to give voters their say and pass judgment on the performance and results of incumbent officeholders.

With that as a crucial guide, it would be difficult to argue for the replacement of any of the four incumbents running for reelection and election to the Sarasota County Hospital Board.

Of course, we know the board members are not directly responsible for outcomes and operations among the many services of the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare System. The buck for those outcomes typically stops at the CEO and the hospital systems’ leaders — the people responsible for executing and guiding the business.

Nevertheless, the board members sit as a check on the CEO and the management’s execution and ultimately approves the business’ strategic direction.

So if you look at the many national accolades Sarasota Memorial has earned over the past four years, it would be difficult to conclude anything other than the hospital board members’ are doing a better than satisfactory job.

Consider just a smattering of the recognition:

  • Only hospital in Florida to earn the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ highest five-star rating for overall quality and safety;
  • One of 57 U.S. hospitals rated a high performer in all nine conditions and procedures evaluated by U.S. News & World Report;
  • One of three cardiac programs in the U.S. and Canada to earn the top three-star rating from the Society of Thoracic Surgeons for patient care and outcomes in all five adult cardiac surgery procedures; and
  • One of 39 organizations worldwide to earn Gallup’s Great Workplace Award (2018).

And for the past three years, Sarasota Memorial has reported operating profit margins of 7.7%, 9.6% and 9.2% — well above the median operating margin of 1.7% for not-for-profit hospital systems nationwide.

All of this is not to say the hospital board members are perfect.

We’re told the majority of board members — mostly retired executives — don’t challenge management enough.

One candidate, Democrat  Laurie Kreindler, also makes a case for the hospital system to upgrade its patient communications and scheduling technology.

Kreindler, the founder of a successful educational software company, has the business experience and leadership skills that would fit well with the board. But timing is everything. For this election cycle, the incumbents have earned another term.



When every statewide election comes around, voting to retain Supreme Court justices and District Court of Appeals judges is always a puzzle. 

Who are these people? How do we know whether they should be retained? Are they good at what they do? Should they keep their jobs or be tossed?

Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen put it best in a 1990 column on judicial elections when he wrote: “Typically we are better informed about our choice of stick deodorant than our choice of judges.”

What voter actually is going to do the research to find out whether these judges are judging fairly and impartially? Truth is, almost no one. 

Nevertheless, it has been this way for 50 years. Floridians vote to retain Supreme Court and appellate judges (for six-year terms), while circuit court and county judges actually run in competitive races — assuming there are multiple candidates seeking the seat. In this cycle, two Manatee attorneys, Melissa Gould and Kristy Zinna, are in a competitive run-off for the Group 4 Manatee County judge seat.

So how do voters know whether to retain the Supreme Court or appellate judges? One place to start is the website of the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission, whose sole purpose is to investigate judges accused of misconduct. You can see the pending and historical cases on its website. None of the judges on the ballot has ever been under review.

Another way is to rely on the Florida Bar. In each election cycle, the Bar publishes the results of a survey of its members on each of the judges. Bar members’ responses are categorized on the basis of those who “Have considerable knowledge” of the judges; those who “Have limited knowledge”; and a total of the two categories. In this year’s survey, the results look like this:

  • Supreme Court Justice Carlos G. Muniz: 71% in favor of retention; 29% against.

Second District Court of Appeals:

  • Judge Drew Atkinson: 76%-24%
  • Judge Morris Silberman: 90%-10%
  • Judge Daniel H. Sleet: 85%-15%   
  • Judge Andrea Teves Smith: 82%-18%

A final fact worth knowing is who appointed the judges to their position:

Muniz: Gov. DeSantis, 2019

Atkinson: Gov. Scott, 2018

Silberman: Gov. Bush, 2001

Sleet: Gov. Bush, 2005

Smith: Gov. Scott, 2013

Rare is the case when voters reject the retention of judges. This year should be no different.

We recommend: Yes for all judges.



Supervisor of Elections

The fact of the matter is it really shouldn’t matter if the supervisor of elections is a Republican, Democrat, Independent, Socialist or whatever. The most important aspects of this elected office are competence, execution and integrity.

Can the person vying for this job conduct fair, timely and accurate elections? Can the person seeking this office lead and manage a staff and budget? Is the person trustworthy?

If those are the yardsticks by which to measure the candidates for this office, incumbent Mike Bennett has earned a third term.

Bennett, a former business owner and Navy veteran, has been in public office for 20 years — two years in the Florida House; 10 years in the Senate; and now eight years as the Manatee supervisor of elections.

Those who know Bennett know that he is a diehard patriot who puts love of country above himself — and that he holds the same passion for everyone’s vote.

We recommend: Mike Bennett


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