Host: Last fall, the all-male and all-Republican Sarasota County Commission voted to drastically cut funding for childcare services. They eventually took back a big part of the cutbacks, but driven by Commissioner Mike Moran, who says he wants to end “Sarasota socialism”, they radically overhauled the way the county funds social services. During the first session of this year, Moran continued to put his laser focus on social services. He now also yields the gavel for the county commission, and WSLR News reporter Florence Fahringer was there to soak up the atmosphere of the Moran commission.
Florence Fahringer: Many things are shifting with the new year, the county commission chair being one of them. As was decided at the end of last year during a commission retreat, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger has passed the gavel on to Commissioner Moran.
Sarasota County Commission Chair Mike Moran.
Mike Moran: Permit me here this morning to start off 2024, but recognize 2023. And specifically, Commissioner Cutsinger. He was our chair in 2023, as most of you know. We want to take a minute here and recognize him. Ron, you’re just a pleasure to deal with. That as the chair, it’s not the job to make us all agree. The job as the chair is to make sure you have an orderly meeting, so we can all be heard, we can have healthy debate, and discuss in the interest of the public, to make the best decisions we can for you, to the best of our ability, and Commissioner Cutsinger, you’re just a remarkable example, you’re incredibly professional.
FF: So began the first commission meeting of 2024. Then the commission breezed through the first 32 items, with two notable exceptions. This isn’t Moran’s first turn. He’s already been chair once, way back in 2020. But this time around, something is haunting his ascendancy to the county chair. His recent career has been mired in social services. Moran certainly fashions himself as a crusader for the taxpayer. Last year, he pushed for dramatic cuts against behavioral health initiatives and childcare, a number of which the commission would go on to roll back mere weeks later.
One organization conspicuously absent from these cuts was Sarasota Teen Court, an organization which Moran’s wife Lori Moran currently serves as chief operating officer. So when it comes to items eight and 10 on the agenda, both of which had to do with the county’s health and human services funding, Moran made some clarifications.
MM: I will actually pull number eight and number 10. As you all know, I believe on this board, my wife works at Teen Court. Eight and 10 are related to that. Out of an abundance of caution, I will not be voting on those two and I’ll pass the gavel for eight and 10. Just a little bit of color to that is, I feel there’s absolutely zero conflict here. I’ve met with our county attorney. He feels the same. He can speak for himself. But out of an abundance of caution, we will pause here, and I’d like to hear the commission ethics to be heard on that, which I’m happy to do.
FF: Only 40 minutes into his first meeting as chair, and he surrendered the gavel, albeit momentarily. The motions were put to a vote and passed with ease. Soon after, the first juggernaut item of the meeting hit the floor — item 34, Health and Human Services. Staff presented item 34, which came in four parts, A through D, covering the contracted human services process for fiscal year 2025. It was full of technicalities, which Moran was all too happy to nitpick.
Staffer: So these are what we are asking for the board for approval, and we are here to answer any questions you may have at this point.
MM: Thank you so much, Jessica and Chris. I can’t thank you enough for the time and energy you put into this, and working through us, as with us, as we try and make some improvement to this program. I’ll start, and I’m all ears from the commission here, but just real quick. I think it’s incredibly important to maybe back out of the detail here for a minute, and what the intent of this policy-making board is. We make policy here. If you go all the way up here, 30,000 feet, is we are taking taxpayer money and giving it to third parties to do hopefully good things for the community. So the question becomes, and it’s a big first step, is where is it appropriate to use taxpayer dollars, and where isn’t it. This is the first round of trying to improve this, but what makes me nervous is, right out of the gate, it was purposeful to keep those broad for us at the advisory board. Food, shelter, safety — and I get it — it was a struggle for us. What does safety mean, right? Okay. A little bit of that was purposeful, to give latitude for you guys to advise us, and as an advisory board in those areas, the problem is looking at, I feel like, it’d be critical on this side you guys I’m discussing this to improve it.
FF: So on and so forth. But, letter by letter, item 34 passed completely and unanimously. After item 34 was put to rest, the commission worked their way through the rest of the meeting, up until commissioner comments. The comments worked their way through the commissioners up until they hit chair Moran, who echoed an earlier moment in the meeting.
MM: Wonderful, thank you. I’m up, so under my commissioner comments here today, we had the ‘licensed mental health reimbursement pilot program final documents discussion and possible action’. As I mentioned earlier this morning, out of the abundance of caution, I will not be voting on this today. I don’t think there’s an ounce of conflict here, and again, I’m not speaking for our county attorney, he doesn’t either. But we’re going, I’m not going to vote for this today.
FF: In the spirit of symmetry, the meeting made its final bookend with one less public comment. After over seven hours the inaugural commission meeting of 2024 came to an end.
This is Florence Fahringer, reporting for WSLR News.
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