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Republican Venice elected two Democrats to the city council. Now what?

Written by on Saturday, November 18, 2023

WSLR talks to one of the winners and a grassroots organizer to find out.

By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: Nov. 17, 2023

Host: Last week, voters in Venice – where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 2:1 – swept two Democrats into the city council. Both campaigned on anti-developer platforms. Ramon Lopez tried to find out what grassroots activists expect from them.

Ramon Lopez: Largely Republican Venice on Nov. 7 elected two Democrats for city council seats.

Joan Farrell beat two-term incumbent Mitzie Fiedler with 52.3 percent of the vote in the Seat 1 race. Ron Smith won with 61.8 percent against political newcomer Dusty Feller in the Seat 2 election contest. Farrell and Smith will be sworn-in to start their three-year terms at 8:30am on Nov. 28, followed by a regular council meeting.

The turnout was 40.6 percent, high for a stand-alone local election. In the City of Venice, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly two to one, which makes the outcome surprising. Clearly, Venice voters crossed party lines to address pressing issues.

This was Joan Farrell’s second run for elected office. Back in 2020, she unsuccessfully ran for the Tennessee General Assembly. She is a vocal opponent to Pat Neal’s plans for a 10-acre commercial development at the corner of Jacaranda Blvd. and Laurel Road, replacing existing open space and wetland. She said she won the hard-fought election because people wanted change at Venice City Hall.

Joan Farrell, Venice City Council

Joan Farrell: There has been a seat change. Voters have woken up to the thought that … they like development, [but] they do not like overdevelopment. They are also alarmed about Red Tide and its effect on our health and our beaches and the tourism, of course. And they’re also concerned that affordable housing is not available to the workforce, and that means the nurses, the waitresses, the hair cutters, the fire and police officers, EMS. Those are areas, among others, that I am going to be going on a giant fact-finding mission, and I’m going to be there hitting the ground running on Day One.

RL: Farrell favors controlled growth and looks forward to resolving the battle with Pat Neal.

JF: There has to be growth – .. you know, the economy needs to move along. What has happened is that it has occurred at a reckless pace. I did not approve of the way the land was grabbed. And so it was a land grab, and that is what is in the courts. … That was a grave error, and I think city council has now with the vote that got myself and Ron Smith in, I think they are kind of .. reconsidering if they had done the correct thing. 

RL: The end result of Farrell’s win?

JF:  A reconsideration of the path and the direction that the city was taking. I think there might have been a little bit of group think. I’m not sure all the factors that were involved, but the status quo, it’s always easy to maintain the status quo. And so we bring a fresh look at the situation.

RL: Ron Smith is a retired newspaper editor and Florida prosecutor. He employs polished public speaking skills and brings experience to the city council. Smith explained at a candidate’s forum why he was running again for a Venice City Council seat.

Ron Smith

Ron Smith: I’m running again because I believe that people have tired of the dark money that’s pouring in, trying to control who’s on our city council. They’re tired of the unbridled growth. And I thought that there was a place for me in the city and in the government, helping us avoid lawsuits, helping us settle disputes, helping us listen to our citizens.

RL: Ken Baron leads the fight against the grocery store/restaurant-anchored commercial development Pat Neal wants to put near his home. He’s also closely monitoring the plans to build a self-storage building on Border Road, very near where he lives. And that commercial development remains before the Venice City Council.

Baron is pleased with the outcome of the election.

Ken Baron: They stood for the neighborhoods. They stood for reasonable growth. They’re against overdevelopment of our community. It was a breath of fresh air to have those two elected and we’re looking forward to what they will do on the city council. It kind of gives the other members of the city council a flavor for what the temperament in this city is. I think that the residents of this city are tired of all the development. We’re tired of looking at all the clear cutting going on. We’re tired of the increase in traffic. And I firmly believe that is what propelled these two candidates into office.

RL: He believes the city council will now listen to community concerns over the self-storage project.

Self-storage project artwork

Self-storage project plot

KB: So I do think based on what the two candidates, what their platforms were against overdevelopment and therefore reasonable development. And let’s face it, this is a residential area surrounded by a residential area. There are compatibility issues with this project. And my hope is that the two new City Council members who are for reasonable growth will identify that. And my further hope is that based on the climate in this city, how the residents feel about development, I’m hoping that the existing city council members will take that into consideration before they put a monstrosity over on that corner.

RL: The retired Air Force officer is optimistic that the Venice City Council will now be receptive to community input on the future complexion of the city.

KB: My hope is that the existing city council members will take the results of this election into consideration, especially with such a vehement input from the citizens.

RL: Daniel Kuether is chair of the Sarasota County Democratic Party. In a press release, he categorized the two wins as victories for everyday citizens.

“It’s clear the citizens of Venice are sick and tired of developers like Pat Neal buying these elections with an inordinate amount of money, so that he can easily push his proposals through the council later in the year.”

This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.

 

WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.