Red tide, building height heat up Venice races

Two seats will be decided in Tuesday's election.

Venice politics, as in so many growing Florida communities, remain centered around growth and development. Toss in a pandemic environment and the threat of red tide and you get the 2021 elections.

With two seats on the City Council up for vote, the races this year will play a role in finalizing land development regulations, setting taxes and charting the coastal community’s long-term future. And with no other candidate-focused elections in Sarasota County this fall, it has attracted political attention from the major parties.

Incumbent City Council member Helen Moore faces a challenge from fellow real estate agent Sandy Sibley. Meanwhile, James Boldt, Jennifer Lewis and Chris Simmons are facing off for the open Seat 4 spot. The winners will be decided on Tuesday. There’s also plenty at stake for the Republican Party of Sarasota County, which has backed Moore and Boldt, and the Sarasota Democratic Party, which backs Sibley and Lewis.

Seat 3

Moore has felt frustrated through the election cycle at what she considers the repeated spread of bad information.

“I’m going to give people the benefit of the doubt and say it’s misinformation and not willful lies repeated like soundbites in the last month of the campaign,” she said.

Specifically, she feels the debate about land development regulations has been twisted to make it seem as if the City Council on its current trajectory plans to allow much taller buildings downtown. As a former planning commissioner who worked on the city comprehensive plan, and who as a Council member has watched as regulations come to fruition, she considers this a twisting of fact. Anything in the works remains in draft form, she said.

Sibley said she believes those regulations offer a chance to rein in excessive development.

“Next year, the revised Land and Development Regulations, that are in draft form, will be voted on by Council. There are some very important restrictions on building growth that we need to see become law. If they aren’t voted in, it will be at least another 10 years before they can be revisited,” she said.

She wants the regulations to limit building heights, and said the city needs Council members who won’t support developer plans that aren’t good for the city. Rather, she said the city needs to get proactive with its planning rules and encourage solar power and green building, while also electrifying the city’s vehicle fleet.

Moore, a political adversary to Mayor Ron Feinsod, views the election as one where a political force is attempting to take full control of the Council. She promised to offer an alternative voice. She loathes the way partisan politics have played a role in this year’s election — though she said she would like to see fellow Republican Boldt elected for the open seat.

Sibley isn’t running too much of an anti-establishment campaign and praised City Manager Ed Lavallee and other staff. But she said she’s running to bring fresh ideas and a more vocal voice on issues. She doesn’t level many direct criticisms at Moore, except to say that she hasn’t provided that type of input over her three years on Council.

Seat 4

The other election taking place will determine who succeeds Vice Mayor Richard Cautero, who isn’t seeking another term on the Council.

Boldt has touted his business background as a chief qualification.

“That I have owned five businesses in four different industries makes me uniquely qualified for the Council seat,” he said. “The Council deals with so many different aspects of the city, a broad background will be very helpful. We have a well-run city that we should be proud of, staffed with well-qualified staff.”

In coming years, he said, Venice needs its infrastructure to keep up with continued growth. It’s important the city remain financially healthy so there’s no lapse in city services.

“We have many fixed income residents and we can not afford to have large swings in taxes and fees,” Boldt said. “I will work with and listen to the people of Venice and be their voice on the Council.”

Lewis, who previously worked for CBS and Clear Channel and now works in real estate, has campaigned on keeping height restrictions where they are today.

“Quaint is often the word used to describe our town,” she said. “I want to keep it that way.”

It’s the small town character of Venice she said drew her parents in 1992 and which keeps her in the city now.

Besides development, Lewis wants city leaders to take a much more proactive stance on battling red tide, by working more closely with state and federal officials seeking solutions.

“I’m a balance sheet-conscious person and will search for grants and other creative dollars,” she said. “I have an inner circle of friends who describe me as a, ‘common sense, solution-based’ person.”

Simmons hopes his status as the only candidate in the race without a political party behind him will be welcomed by a set of voters.

“This election season has reduced itself largely to major party talking points — sustainability and solar on one side, low taxes on the other — most of which don’t help Venice right now,” he said.

While he said it’s important to be involved in red tide talks, there are other local issues the city should pay attention to that get ignored. As someone suffering mobility issues, he would like City Hall to require more accessibility for the disabled around town, whether that’s on local beaches or major destinations like Venice Theater. The city 15 years ago had a disabilities advisory board and he would like to bring that back.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected]


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