The City Commission is getting two new members on Friday. How much change will Hagen Brody and Jen Ahearn-Koch bring to City Hall?
As he celebrated his first-place finish in Tuesday’s municipal election — and his new title of city commissioner-elect — attorney Hagen Brody saw a diverse coalition of supporters rejoicing alongside him at Louies Modern.
Although Tuesday marked the end of a seven-month campaign, Brody said his election night party might also reflect the beginning of a new dynamic at City Hall.
“I look around and I see people from all walks of life — successful folks, folks that are struggling, young people, not so young people — and part of my campaign has always been about mutual respect,” Brody said. “I think it helps just getting people together in one room and seeing different points of view, to move forward on some of the lingering issues that we have had for so long.”
Brody and neighborhood leader Jen Ahearn-Koch emerged victorious in Tuesday’s election for two at-large seats on the City Commission. The two beat out small business owner Martin Hyde, the third candidate to advance to the runoff election.
Brody earned a vote from 74.6% of the 8,534 voters who participated in Tuesday’s election. Ahearn-Koch got 59.5% of the vote, and Hyde earned 36.5%. Voter turnout was 22.8%, nearly a 4% increase from the first election in March.
Brody’s campaign prioritized a leaner government focused on public safety, utilities and infrastructure. Rather than hinging on any one issue, Brody thinks the results reflect voters’ confidence in his ability to work effectively as a commissioner.
“There is no priority No. 1,” Brody said. “We have so many issues in the city to deal with, but I think above all is that the institution of the City Commission is effective, efficient and respected — and people believe again that it can achieve great things for this city.”
Ahearn-Koch, the top vote-getter in March, had a similar reaction when asked about her top priorities. She singled out transportation, development, affordable housing and homelessness as key issues the board would need to address, but said all of those issues cannot be addressed independently of one another.
“You’re not in a silo,” Ahearn-Koch said. “It’s you with other people, and I think all of these things are connected. I can’t wait to get started.”
Hyde took full responsibility for his loss Tuesday. During the runoff period, Hyde focused his criticism on Ahearn-Koch, attacking her positions on development and her willingness to consider making Sarasota a sanctuary city.
“I did what I thought was the best thing at the time,” Hyde said. “I sense that I was obviously wrong, and in the end, I have to live with that. I invested my own time, my own money and the defeat — which is a resounding one — is on me.”
Hyde is forecasting little variation from the status quo at City Hall. He said Brody and Ahearn-Koch will fill similar roles as outgoing commissioners Suzanne Atwell and Susan Chapman.
“I don’t think very much changes in Sarasota, and I don’t think the sky falls in, either,” Hyde said.
It’s easy to draw parallels between the outgoing and incoming commissioners: Atwell was a vocal supporter of Brody’s campaign; Chapman and Ahearn-Koch both served as neighborhood association leaders and Planning Board members before ascending to the commission. Atwell and Chapman made appearances at Brody and Ahearn-Koch’s election night parties, respectively.
Atwell pointed to Brody’s age as one new dynamic the 35-year-old will bring to the commission.
“He is going to bring in passion, youth and a knowledge of this community,” Atwell said.
Brody, who had no city government experience before running, hoped other residents would be encouraged to get involved.
“Procedure can be learned,” Brody said. “Substance is what we should be looking for.”
During the campaign, Ahearn-Koch was tied to a potentially significant change in how the city reviews new developments. She served on the steering committee of the resident activist group STOP, which has called for an end to administrative approval, a process that allows city staff to determine if proposed projects are compliant with zoning regulations.
Her victory Tuesday isn’t a guarantee that the commission will embrace STOP’s core issues. Kate Lowman, another STOP steering committee member, said the group planned to make its case against administrative approval once the city begins reviewing a new form-based zoning code later this year.
Although the group can anticipate a sympathetic ear in Ahearn-Koch, STOP doesn’t have a good sense of where the other commissioners may stand. In the lead-up to the election, Brody expressed opposition to the idea that administrative approval was creating problems.
“Our expectation is that we need to double down to clearly make our case,” Lowman said.
Ahearn-Koch and Brody were both optimistic that their election would lead to more significant progress during their four-year terms. Ahearn-Koch said she and Brody have gotten along fabulously, and anticipated the new commission would have substantive, civil discussions together.
“We will do that well at the table, and I think we will be very constructive,” Ahearn-Koch said.
Brody, too, was confident in his ability to work collaboratively once he officially joins the board.
“As long as we all remember that we have that core desire to see this city succeed, we can come to a lot of agreement,” he said.
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