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Herald-Tribune exclusive: Cozy communications

Written by on Friday, April 26, 2024

Email exchanges with Sarasota County officials show how big developers shape policy, even before the public knows.

By Derek Gilliam

Original Air Date: Apr. 26, 2024

Host: WSLR News is teaming up with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, to share some of their investigative reporting with you. Here’s the first installment: In an upcoming report, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune shows just how cozy some developers have gotten with Sarasota County government officials and department heads. In more than 900 emails obtained through a public records request, the newspaper’s reporters uncovered numerous examples of developers shaping public policy, well before neighborhood opposition even has a chance to take shape. Herald-Tribune reporter Derek Gilliam shares some details.

Derek Gilliam: An investigation by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune shows how close some prominent developers have gotten with Sarasota County officials and department heads when it comes to negotiating large-scale development deals.

A trove of more than 900 emails involving officials from Benderson and other prominent developers, law firms Icard Merrill and Williams Parker, and consulting firm Kimley Horn shows that developers have been in contact with government representatives hundreds of times during the last year. In those communications, they bent the ears of officials long before many projects are publicly announced.

The emails lay out many instances of developers shaping public policy well before neighborhood opposition even has a chance to form. That includes “invite-only meetings” from staff to the area’s most successful developers and their land-use professionals that appear to happen on a regular basis.

While these non-public discussions are not illegal, they raise questions about the outsized influence large developers have on what is built in the region. Most projects get built, even as neighbors or the wider community cite quality of life issues like traffic and environmental degradation.

The process that led to the proposed comprehensive plan amendment allowing construction of large hotels on Siesta Key began with a meeting request in August 2023, months before the public learned about it.

Lourdes Ramirez is a Siesta Key controlled-growth advocate. She says that, while communications between developers and county officials have been cozy, the public is facing growing obstacles.

Lourdes Ramirez: I believe the biggest change is the lack of transparency over the years and when I first started, I used to even get the county’s agenda in my email every time when something gets posted. So there was a regular communication. So over the years communication to the citizens have been cut back to a point where even today it’s gotten really bad if I want a particular document, I have to go through a new portal. And I have to know what keywords I have to put in that portal. And I have to know who is directly involved. In in the face a proposed change to the zoning code I have to have, I have to have previous knowledge to even ask for information. And I don’t know how that could be possible when you don’t know what’s coming down the pike. And so I think there are more and more obstacles being placed for the citizens to get access to public records and any kind of information it’s seems to be more difficult today.

DG: This has been Derek Gilliam for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

This report is part of an agreement between WSLR News and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. To read Derek Gilliam’s full report, go to https://www.heraldtribune.com/story/news/investigations/2024/04/26/records-show-developers-communicate-closely-with-sarasota-county-staff/73117906007/


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