Q&A with Joe Barbetta, Republican Sarasota County Commission incumbent, District 2

October 19th, 2010 by Susan Nilon in NewsPolitics reprinted from Creative Loafing

Joe Barbetta (R) is running for re-election, for his second term as Sarasota County Commissioner in District 2, facing a surprisingly strong challenge from independent Cathy Antunes. I had a chance to sit with Commissioner Barbetta to gain some insight on the issues that are important to him.
CL: What made you want to run for a second term?
Joe Barbetta: These are some tough economic times and I think it’s tough to leave a position like this in an economy when we are starting to get things done. And we (the commission) are gelling pretty well together. I wouldn’t want to upset that applecart.
Are there any projects that you would like to see through to the end?
Yes, I would like to get our unemployment rate back down to where it used to be at 3 percent. It skyrocketed to 12 or 13 percent, now it’s about 11 percent. I would also like to get more diversification in the economy rather than just tourism. I would like to see the Benderson Park Rowing facility done in the next couple if years. The Institute for the Ages is something that we have been working for several years — which is basically taking advantage of our aging population as an asset.
One of the issues that came up recently due to the oil spill in the gulf is energy. Our citizens want to be on the cutting edge of renewable energy. How do you feel that plays into what you are trying to accomplish?
Well, we have been pushing hard for that. We have our sustainability institute, and the Florida House — all places that are mini incubators of energy related ideas: energy efficient homes, solar hot water, air conditioning, energy grants, and energy start appliances. We have been promoting all of that. Unfortunately with FPL, we have another 30 year agreement. I was the lone “no” vote on that. It was a 4-1 vote. I didn’t want to give them another 30 years. I couldn’t get the support to what I was willing to do, which was six five-year agreements. I suggested to the City that they might look at that since they are now going through the same thing. But we were able to extract a few things from FPL to help us with energy savings.
We should be selling power back to the grid when we do solar power — solar hot water heaters, solar air conditioning — where we generate more energy than we are using. The state of Florida has never had a good energy policy, so we have to create it from scratch on our own. Here we are, the Sunshine State, and we are not taking advantage of it because FPL is pretty powerful. It’s tough to get things through. I admire the city for trying to at least — whether they can afford to set up their own utility is another thing, but at least negotiate with FPL to get some benefits relating to today’s technology.
Of the programs that you mentioned, such as the Florida House and the EECBG grants, I am aware that they are experiencing problems where they are not able to move the process along like people were expecting. Are there things that the county can do so the people don’t become discouraged in the process?
We have encouraged our sustainability department to speed things up, however part of the funding is coming from the state. We are pushing as hard as we can and we don’t want to frustrate anybody. Unfortunately, government works a little slow. And when we are in the process of being reimbursed; that’s where the bottlenecking occurs.
You were elected as a slow growth candidate. In your first term, it didn’t seem to be like that. You said it was because of the economy and the need to create jobs that led to some of your decisions.
I wish you could tell me what those are, because I have asked that question of Lobeck and Zolar and everybody that has accused me of that, but I haven’t changed one bit. As I said to Dan Lobeck, put my votes alongside of Jon Thaxton for the past four years, and if we differ in more than one or two votes, I would be amazed. I know the one vote we differed in was the one down in Englewood on the Gottfried Stewardship district. My reason for that vote was the developer was going to front $90 million to build up River Road. It’s an evacuation area that has been on the books for 20 some years, and I felt that the trade-off of him fronting the $90 million to build the road and the 20-year build-out of his residential development at a time when the economy needed jobs justified my vote. Now, it didn’t pass. It was a 3-2 vote. So it didn’t get done. River Road didn’t get done and now we are looking for money for River Road. That’s a vote I have lost and that is a vote that they said that I have changed.
The only other vote that Jon [Thaxton] and I voted the same on this is the Lakewood Ranch Village. I was the lone “no” vote on 2050 [ the Comprehensive Land Management Plan] back when I was on the planning commission. It was an 8-1 vote (on the planning board) and the vote on the County Commission was 5-0. But I was on the planning commission at the time and I voted against the 2050 because I didn’t want anything to happen in that rural area. I didn’t think that you could airlift a village of 10 thousand people 8 miles out east and have it work. So I voted against that.
To this day, people say that I have changed, but I have yet to get anyone to say it was because of this vote or that vote. The only one I can think of — because Jon and I vote the same otherwise — the only vote that Jon differed on, and it was the other way, was Billy Springer’s huge development out Bee Ridge and the Bee Ridge extension. I voted against it and Jon voted for it. But that never was built either.
I think I have been continuously slow growth. I think the change may be in perception, because the business community that fought me in the past, at the last minute when I was up for election, now understands that what I was arguing for was a diversified economy. I have always campaigned on re-development and infill. I have always felt that west of I-75 is where we should be doing our development — from I-75 to the water, re-developing our urban core vs. building out east. I campaigned on that the first time around and I still am campaigning on that today.
Can you see anything that will help promote that kind of development?
We have come up with regulations that are encouraging re-development. We had a recent comprehensive plan that assists developers to go in and look at stale shopping centers, office buildings, and apartment complexes and re-development them at slightly higher density and not requiring as many parking spaces. I have been a transit person. I have pushed hard for transit. I think that helps on any re-development where you don’t need as many cars along the transit route.
Would you still cast a “no” vote on the 2050?
Yes. I think it’s a bad plan. And I think I have been proven out, not that I am happy about it, but I have been proven out. Because for 8 years now since 2050 — $4 million dollars later — and we don’t have on stick in the ground. And we never will. It’s too tight — number one — and its way out. People don’t want to live 8 miles out, expect to be captive, and do all of their shopping there. They are going to come to the beach. They are going to come to Ringling. They are going to come to St. Armand’s. That was always my argument. It may be beautiful, but it’s not going to work. Consequently the developers have found out that they can’t build out there. I did say on my “no” vote on 2050 that we should do a test village at Lakewood Ranch and low and behold — 7 and 1/2-8 years later, we are finally doing the Village at Lakewood Ranch. I felt that way because I was watching Lakewood Ranch North (the Manatee County side) being built out and it made a lot of sense because it’s up against I-75, it’s not 8 miles out. And Rex went about it the right way — slow, 10-15 year build-out. I think that is what we are going to see on our side. Plus we were really are out of quality new housing in the north part of the county, other than re-sales.
How does that affect the Fruitville initiative…?
The Fruitville Initiative came about back in early 2000 when I was on the planning commission. The same guys who did the Florida House came up with a plan called the Fruitville Initiative. It was studied for a couple of years. Then in 2004, it was killed and nothing was done. So when I was elected in 2006, I said we need to reactivate that. I was hearing rumblings from the property owners that they were going to put another shopping center out there. So I said to myself that this is the only exit left in Sarasota County that hasn’t been stuck with a couple of huge shopping centers. I went into it knowing that all five properties owners (who own hundreds of acres), plus us (we own 42 acres out there next to our library), could each go in and build a major employment center. They could build light manufacturing, office buildings; they could apply to build a big box. I didn’t want that to happen. So I went around on my own. I got the board’s authority to talk to them without committing to them to see if they were willing to participate in a process to master plan 325 acres rather than have 5 piece meal developments — which will probably hurt the 42 acres that the citizens own. It took me 2.5 years to talk with the property owners and say if we all get a master plan, then we probably will get a better value. And that’s what it was all about. My opponent [Cathy Antunes] and [Dan] Lobeck have said that these were secret meetings. There was nothing secret about them. It was me, on my own time, talking to the property owners to see if they were willing to show up. Once they showed up at the table, all the meetings were open to the public. We brought in a Master Planner from California. And we reactivated the old Fruitville Initiative of 2003.
I stepped back because I did my part in it. I show up at the meetings, but I don’t have any input on it. My theory is when you have 300 undeveloped acres there, you want something nice there ? not just three ugly boxes. There were no secret dealings made.
The County Commission has been under criticism of late about transparency. How do you feel transparency fits within the government?
It’s there every day. I am one of the biggest proponents of it. We actually win awards for it. I guess that is one of the most frustrating thing about this whole lawsuit [Sunshine lawsuit regarding the negotiations between the County and the Baltimore Orioles] — a small handful of people feel that we haven’t been transparent. Yet, the rest of our community says we are doing a fantastic job. 90 percent says they love the quality of life. 89 percent says they love their neighborhood. So it’s confusing when you have a small handful of people bring up a lawsuit claiming that we weren’t transparent. All of our hearings were public. When we finally knew that we were going to lose the Cincinnati Reds, I got really concerned — and so did Kelly Kirschner from the city. After 84 years of the tradition of baseball, we were going to lose spring training. So Kelly and I went on our own to Ft. Meyers and initiated discussion with the Red Sox to say that “if you are ever interested, you can come up and talk to us.” We encouraged staff to talk to the Red Sox. All of the emails are public. We didn’t have any public hearings because there weren’t any negotiations that were going on where we were going to commit anybody. Then we had 14 public meetings, all advertised, all open to the public. And the very people that sued us were at those meetings. We lost the Red Sox. Then the Orioles contacted us. Discussions happened with the Orioles that started off at $65 million. I fought hard and got them down to $31 million. I think we got a hell of a deal for the community. I thought everything was fine and then this group sued us. It was unfortunate. Fortunately, we won the case and now we are on appeal. We don’t think we did anything wrong.
Didn’t the judge rule, even though the case was dismissed, that there were Sunshine Laws broken?
He said there were a couple of unintentional violations. But the reason that no one is able to interpret the Sunshine Law is because it was written before emails. He acknowledged this — because it was written before emails and that there is no law on any electronic or strictly dealt with verbal communications. I don’t think it’s a sunshine violation. There is no law that says it’s a Sunshine violation. The judge says it’s borderline.
I changed. If you send me and the four other commissioners an email and I respond to you, I am not going to copy the other commissioners. I am going to automatically delete them. Which is a little bit unfortunate because then there is 4 different conversations going on with one constituent. It’s tough.
I can appreciate people wanting transparency, but this has become almost like a vendetta and also a launching of a campaign. That’s what I am hearing out in the community: “Who does your opponent think she is – suing the county and running at the same time?”
It is my understanding that your name was taken off of the appeal that was filed for the Sunshine lawsuit against the County.
No, I think we are all still on the appeal — the county and the three commissioners. I am off it as an individual defendant. But I am on it as the chairman if the commission.
I had heard that it was because of a settlement that you had reached with the group that had filed the appeal.
That’s a separate lawsuit. What happened was, after they filed the lawsuit against the county and the three of us at a public meeting, our legal counsel was talking to us about the lawsuit. And I said it was unfortunate and that it was a frivolous lawsuit. It was costing us a lot of money and it was extremely unfortunate. Two days later I was sued personally. I heard that Mogenson [the attorney who filed the lawsuit] got very upset; Antunes got very upset; [Jim] Lampl got very upset and said that “we are going to fix Barbetta.” And they sued me personally.
On what grounds?
That I violated the Sunshine laws. They just repeated the lawsuit. It was a vendetta lawsuit. I had to hire a lawyer, Morgan Bentley, which I did. It came down to spending another $20-$25 thousand in legal fees or the insurance company said, “Settle it for $5 thousand dollars.” And that is what I did. There was no admission of liability. In fact, it wasn’t supposed to be discussed. In fact, I have never discussed it, until today. They brought it up; they had a press release the night that the thing was signed — which shows you their motive. It’s unfortunate. What people really don’t understand is that because of this appeal, we can’t issue bonds by the end of this year. In fact, we have to issue them by November 1st at the latest. If we don’t get them issued by November 1st, we lose about a 35 percent rebate from the federal government. These are federal bonds. Which means the county is going to lose between $4 and $6 million and the City is going to lose $2 million. All because of this appeal.
What are the things that you are proud of that you have worked on in your time as County Commission?
I think expanding our economic development possibilities with the economic incentive fund that we have created. Getting the Economic Development Referendum passed recently by 66 percent of the vote. Obviously retaining baseball, spring training. I guess sports tourism is what you can call it: baseball, the rowing facility, additional soccer fields, and the Legacy Trail, Urfer Family Park, Rothenback Park, the fertilizer ordinance to help clean out bays. And better city/county relationships. I think we have turned the corner on our relationship with the city and the town of Longboat Key. I champion sports tourism and economic development a lot. I think its’ a good board and we have done a lot for the community. I would also say no tax increase during my entire term, no property tax increases, and no pay raises my entire term. I am pledging that I won’t raise taxes while I am in office.
How do you compare yourself to your opponent, Cathy Antunes? How do you separate yourself to what you bring to the table as to what she brings to the table?
I think business experience, legal background, four years of elected office, 18 years of public service, and 20-some years of volunteer work throughout the community. I have been with Habitat for Humanity and several other organizations that have rebuilt Sarasota. I am involved in scouting — I am an Eagle Scout. I grew up as a scout and became an Eagle Scout at a young age. Then, I would guess my track record for what we have accomplished in a tough economy.
Last words?
Sarasota is a great community. I have been here 28 years. I love it. I will probably be here the rest of my life. And my goal has been to stay on the cutting edge of everything out there — whether it’s energy-related, tourism-related, and economic development-related — in this day and age the only thing that separates us from the rest of society in a mobile age is a great place. And Sarasota continues to be that great place.