by Walter Brasch
American Reporter Senior Correspondent
June 14, 2010
BRADENTON, Fla., June 10, 2010 -- The Great Debate over Florida's "Hometown Democracy" Amendment 4 at the Manatee County Central Library here last night lent a frame to the broad impact of the Nov. 2 initiative to require any changes to a county master plan to be approved by voters.
Sponsored by The American Reporter and the Federation of Manatee County Community Associations, the debate between four non-incumbent candidates seeking three seats on the county's Board of Commissioners included seven debate "statements" touching on the amendment's potential impact on housing, banking, development, and even adoption of flood-prone evacuation zones.
If enacted, the measure would put the incorporation of Lakewood Ranch, a wealthy unincorporated suburb west of Bradenton that is home to many sports celebrities, to a vote by the entire county, Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash said.
McClash gave the packed meeting room an update on the Gulf oil spill's impact on Manatee County's famed, prize-winning sugar-white beaches - "none," he said - and spoke in favor of Amendment 4's ability to maintain the integrity of current master plans already adopted by voters against the slew of changes proposed by developers every year. He noted that there are already development "entitlements" for 20,000 homes under the current master plan. Amendment 4 proponents say there are more than 100,000 previously approved but unbuilt developments across the state.
Manatee County, more so than many others across the nation, underwent a vast building boom between 2004 and 2007. That activity ground to a halt and a flood of foreclosures swamped county courts after 2007 and is only now beginning to abate. Banks were seized and many developers went bankrupt. One debate statement asked, "Is this the time?" for the limits to development inherent in Amendment 4.
Although the elected Board of County Commissioners in this largely Republican county voted 6-1 on a resolution two weeks ago to express its opposition to the measure - with McClash being the lone dissenter - the Republican and Democratic challengers were split.
One, engineer Sundae Knight, a Democratic candidate for the board's lone at-large seat, said she felt "ambivalent" about the measure, which is supported by a coalition of traditionally Democratic environmental organizations that helped put the measure on the ballot this spring after the Florida Supreme Court turned down a challenge by voters who wanted to remove their names from the initiative petitions. Knight said she wished the measure had more specificity and more tools to help commissioners and developers make planning decisions.
As an engineer, she said, "developers are my bread and butter," so her ambivalence is based on the law's perceived shortcomings, not her work. She also agreed to recuse herself if she recieved substantial contributions - like "$5,000" - from a developer such as the Benderson Co., which is building a huge shopping center on University Parkway in county territory and owns several existing ones.
Republican Norm Luppino, a Manatee County planner for 21 years, said he flatly opposed the measure and noted that only two percent of his contributions come from developers. He says the wide variety of locations within the county made it nearly impossible for voters to cast their ballots while knowing something about the issues.
"If they don't know anything about [the land-use change]," Luppino said, "they'll vote no." That could unfairly jettison development that might be beneficial, he said. He cited one audience questioner's example of a hurricane flood evacuation zone becoming obsolete and needing change as an issue that would require a voter okay and could impact residential security if not approved. Luppino faces Roger Galle, Tea Bagger Tim Norwood and real estate agent Robin DiSabatino.
Galle, a Democrat, said he supports the measure as a way for "voters to have their say" when county commissioners seem to do whatever developers ask. Galle was the most outspoken of the challengers, insisting that developers now control the county commission - as evidenced, he said, by the absence from the debate of incumbents who have received the bulk of their campaign funds from developers.
Attorney and educator Michael Gallen, A Democrat whose father snapped photos from the front row, endorsed the "sledgehammer" approach of Amendment 4 over the status quo, which he said lent itself to corruption and left redevelopment of the county's urban core the stepchild of residential and commercial expansion in the far reaches of eastern Manatee County.
"A sledgehammer would be better than what we've got," he said, picking up on a phrase in the moderator's question. Gallen faces fellow Democrat Gwen Brown, a commissioner for 16 years, who has lost several homes to foreclosure and has attracted a substantial pool of contributions from developers this year. It is her turn to chair the county commission. Her District 2 comprises all of downtown Bradenton, which has struggled with crime and the host of issues downtown areas across the country have suffered as Wal-Mart superstores, shopping centers and housing developments lure shoppers away from once-thriving central cities.
In many respects, however, especially for entertainment, downtown Bradenton remains more attractive than most of the newly-developed areas, where many shopping centers are going broke, homes remain empty and stores suffer reduced patronage as the Great Recession persists. More than 6,000 homeowners have lost their homes, thousands once planned remain unbuilt, and four Bradenton-based banks have been seized since the Great Recession began in 2008. Both Gallen and Knight strongly endorsed redirecting the flow of new homes and people in the direction of downtown.
The FMCCA represents dozens of the multiplying homeowner associations in residential communities - often with their own tennis courts, shopping, community swimming pools and golf courses - that serve as winter retreats for northerners and over-55 retirement villages for seniors.
Founded by former Bradenton city attorney Ernest "Sandy" Marshall, FMCCA meetings are a regular stop for candidates seeking public office, local and county officials explaining their jobs and homeowners who have complaints about their sometimes restrictive homeowner associations. It provides advice to those homeowners, is represented on school board and county budget advisory committees, and takes an active role in recommending or opposing new laws under consideration by the state legislature.
At Wednesday night's debate, there were three sets of questions, comprising four, two and one propositions, and the format gave three segments for four audience questions each. In the final period, candidates got to ask each other a question to which each could give a one-minute reply. Candidates were asked to change seats twice to ensure that none was asked to answer or speak first or last every time. The seven debate statements were kept secret until they were asked last night.
AR Editor-in-Chief Joe Shea moderated the Great Debate. He is Secretary of the FMCCA and in 2000 moderated the Los Angeles Press Club mayoral debate. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.