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The City Voting Guide according to Matt Orr

by: Matt Orr

For the past few elections I've been approached to run for a seat at the city commission table. Sure, it's a nice stroke to the ego and the $22K salary I would receive as a commissioner would make me a total baller; but when I really sit back and think about it, the reality of having to campaign and listen to people complain ... well, this is my reaction.

Because umbrella drinks are more fun than commission meetings, I've respectfully declined offers for my shot at going big time, but that does not mean I haven't been involved in city politics enough to have an opinion of who should win in this go-around. In this election, we have six people to choose from to fill two seats. The issues everyone is talking about are: 1) Noise 2) Wal-Mart 3) Housing and 4) Economic development.

When you go to the polls on March 12, you will have the option to vote for one of these lucky candidates:

1. Kelvin Lumpkin -- The new face to local elections. He's not offering too many ideas and he seems to be in a learning curve. Too green.2) Susan Chapman -- She's like Tracy Flick in the movie Election. She's bright, ambitious and mean, and she will say what she needs to get ahead.3) Pete Theisen -- If you did not see my snarky article on Pete, you can read it here. For the Cliff's Notes version you can watch this video.4) Linda Holland -- The 30-year neighborhood taskmaster and a Ph.D. on neighborhood crime fighting.5) Richard Dorfman -- The Sarasota advocate who seems to be making "noise" his platform.6) Suzanne Atwell -- Our current mayor who made economic growth one of her main priorities ... and she got it done.As you probably guessed, the first three candidates are no good in my opinion. To be fair, I don't like to lump Lumpkin in with Susan and Pete, but for now it has to be done. There are better choices and he doesn't have enough experience. The last three are the ones we're going to be talking about.

I simply had a 30 to 45-minute conversation with each of them to hear what they had to say about important issues for the city. I was looking for creative solutions to the topics at hand. Keep in mind that all three candidates below basically agree on these hot-button issues, including the noise issue, the Wal-Mart issue and the sound issue. So my decision came down to my perception of their ability to execute on these issues. Below are synopses of my conversations with the candidates.Linda Holland is my number one pick for the commission because she's scrappy and smart. She's led her neighborhood for 30 years. She created crime watches and fought to give neighborhoods a voice. She manages 50 rental properties in Gillespie Park and she's also running her own campaign single-handedly.

In talking to Linda it's clear she would represent the most people in Sarasota because of her understanding of development and her desire to respect the individual neighborhoods, a value I admire. Linda has worked in real estate and she understands the concept of smart urban growth. She likes the idea of a more lenient noise ordinance. She is pro-growth, pro-music and pro-new urbanism (which is basically growth with good mixed-use retail, housing, restaurants and sidewalks to walk to all of it). Linda let me know up front that she is not someone who will come up with creative solutions to fix city issues because that's not in her skill set (good honesty). Her quote to me went something like this: "Matt, look, I'm not a creative like you and your readers. I don't come up with ideas and I admire people like you. I need people like you to tell me what they want to see done. I"m a taskmaster and I don't stop. I recognize good ideas and I want to see the city grow for you." Yay Linda, that's what I want too!

Linda also mentioned economic growth and how she wanted to get to the bottom of why we can't seem to get it right. She talked about keeping our students here, and I was happy to hear she did not think revamping the noise ordinance was the magic bullet to keep our students in town; instead she framed it as one small way to contribute to a larger solution. She, like good thinking people, realizes the noise issue is a part of a puzzle and not a fix. Post-graduation jobs are what we need, and although she was not certain what jobs she could create, she understands it will be important to work with those who can.

How would Linda vote on Wal-Mart? She agreed with the city staff, which means she felt a Wal-Mart was in the right. Frankly, I thought that was wrong but you know what? All the candidates I talked to felt the same way so there's no win there.Richard Dorfman - This was the surprise conversation for me. I've known about Richard for some time and I've enjoyed the few interactions we've had. Because of the hype machine at work I felt I would have agreed with him more. In fact, I was probably going to vote for him until we talked. He talked freely and openly about how he would change the noise ordinance to extend the sound for one hour. He has a background in negotiating and he plans on using that to bring all parties to the table and talk about a solution. Frankly, I see a fatal flaw in that. Sure, it's nice to bring all the parties together in theory, but that's what Sarasota is notorious for ... just talking and talking about the issues, but never offering any plans.

The fact is, these businesses and their owners have been around tables together for years now---to no avail. I beg you, if noise is going to be your primary issue, please give me a solution beyond "We're going to get everyone in a room and talk." I want my candidate to know the issue well enough to propose solutions.

Our conversation continued to head south when I brought up the proposed downtown Wal-Mart. When I mentioned it, he suddenly told me that I needed to "hurry up" my interview. I assume it was because he knew I was not pro-superstore. Fair enough. I know he's busy making calls and knocking on doors. But to me, his view on Wal-Mart is short-sighted.

I've been vocal about why I don't like Wal-Mart moving into any downtown, especially ours. Yes, they provide jobs ... about 200 for this one. But those low-wage, part-time jobs come with a price: They drive out the local mom-and-pop competitors that return their dollars to the community and provide a quality of living experience that Wal-Mart will never, ever, ever give you. To articulate my feelings on the matter I've provided this little video for your viewing pleasure, and I encourage you to share it.

I am so not a journalist, and couldn't take down our conversation in lighting-fast shorthand for you, but this is what I recollect from one five-minute segment of our chat:

Matt: "The jobs Wal-Mart provides are not economic growth jobs."

Richard: "Well, it's not my responsibility to tell people they should apply for a job at Wal-Mart or not."

Matt: "Of course not, but don't you want more than just another box store for the community? It would be good to see economic growth jobs. I think as a community we should be alarmed that they see us as a fit for their store. I'd like to be a community that supports local businesses like Asheville or Portland."Richard: "I can't comment on that, but they do bring 200 jobs."

Matt: "Okay. Can you at least admit that when a Wal-Mart comes to an area, they also cause other stores to close, which typically causes a net loss in jobs?"

Richard: "I don't think the businesses on Main Street should be worried."

Matt: "I don't either, except maybe the toy store, but I'm not just talking about Main Street. I'm talking about our surrounding area and our friends' and neighbors' businesses."

Richard: "Well, the businesses nearby want Wal-Mart."

Matt: "Who?"

Richard: "I don't know, it's just what I read in the Tribune."

Matt: "So you don't know for yourself ..."

Richard: "It's just what I read."

Suddenly I felt as if my noise ordinance buddy had turned a 180 and he was not willing to give any solution or idea about anything. What happened? I'm not a hard-hitting journalist. In fact, people say I'm a nice guy with good intentions and ideas. Why clam up? I'm like Miss Mary Sunshine and I want everyone to win.

Our uneasy conversation didn't get any better. I also asked him about affordable housing, but Richard gave me the run-around. When I asked, "What do you define as affordable housing for our workforce?" Richard offered the lame non-answer, "I can't comment on that." In fact, throughout our entire conversation, Richard seemed a little defensive. It made me wonder what was actually going on behind the curtain of hype that's surrounded him of late. I do think Richard is a nice guy. But Sarasota needs commissioners who offer knowledgable answers to our problems, beyond just reconsidering the noise ordinance. Sadly, Richard had my vote and now he does not. #failSusanne Atwell: She's getting my other vote now. Suzanne has been on the inside of the commission for a few years and her big project has been economic development. She came up with a rip-roaring good idea to bring an Economic Development position specific to the city. She was also forward-thinking enough to have three different groups to pay for the new position's salary, so now the Chamber, the City and the Downtown Improvement District all have the skin in the game. Another Suzanne win was when she created a domestic partnership registry so those of us with domestic partners could obtain city benefits (Side note: that's effed up we would consider this progressive). Suzanne has been criticized by many in her vote for Wal-Mart (including moi), but she's sticking to her guns. Suzanne has more plans for the city moving forward.

Suzanne comes across as someone who is easily persuaded and that's no good. However, in looking at her record she shows solid decision-making (even when I don't agree with it) and she has created worthwhile and measurable programs in the city. She wants to create more participation with Payne Park and work closely with the city EDC. When I asked her who she was going to vote for she said, "I'm not telling, but I can't wait to serve with whoever sits with me."

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