Conflict of Interest: An Open Letter to the Argus Foundation of Sarasota County, FL

Background

Last November, The Argus Foundation — a pricey, members-only business group that has lobbied Sarasota, Florida public officials for over 30 years — broke protocol when it hired one of the five sitting County Commissioners to be its executive director.

Christine Robinson, Sarasota County Commissioner and Executive Director of the Argus Foundation

The move sparked a public uproar, as Commissioner Christine Robinson accepted the new position without resigning from her elected seat on the Sarasota County Commission. A Petition (over 800 signatures), an Integrity rally on April 1, 2015, a crowded and vociferous public input session and many Letters to the Editor of the Sarasota Herald Tribune have all been greeted with silence from the usually voluble Argus Foundation.

On April 22, concerned citizens who helped stage the April 1 Integrity Rally wrote to Argus’s Board seeking an open dialog. In an introductory email, the citizens stated that when an exclusive lobbying organization employs a public official, that organization bears a new, heightened accountability to the public.

In view of larger questions of public policy being warped by judicial sleight of hand regarding definitions of political corruption, Integrity 2016 asked the Officers of Argus to respond to its letter by May 1.

To date, the Argus Foundation Board has maintained silence.

The Integrity 2016 letter is below.

April 22, 2015

To the Board of The Argus Foundation:

Since 1983, your group has positioned itself with dedication and acumen to promote a varied menu of policy positions aimed at making the business climate in Sarasota more fertile and streamlined for the interrelated industries that long have contributed to the cyclic economy of the area, including home construction and development.

In the course of those three decades, you chose your lobbying arguments with care. Mr. Kerry Kirschner presented them with eloquence and force, and often, with the help of your distinguished membership, brought about changes to the county’s Comprehensive Plan that benefited those industries.

Joe R. Hembree, President of the Argus Foundation

Whatever the outcome of particular campaigns or promotional efforts, it’s fair to say that during that time, the public perception was that they took place in an open dialog between private groups like yours on one hand, and equally private groups on the other hand that were less enthusiastic about growth, and more concerned with our common quality of life, environment, and public good. The dialog could become heated, but it was always understood that however the Board of County Commissioners voted, they remained a separate and distinct entity charged with governmental powers, free and unbeholden to any of the groups seeking their votes.

Rod Hershberger, Argus VP

The fact that Sarasota County’s officials were not entangled with conflicting responsibilities and allegiances gave public and quasi-judicial hearings some credibility. It guaranteed at least the appearance of legitimacy and open government to the citizens of Sarasota.

We write to ask you to set forth in some detail your reasons for changing this equation, because it now seems that you no longer consider the apparent independence of public officials necessary or worthwhile.

William E. North Jr., Argus Treasurer

Please share with us your justifications for moving ahead with offering a salaried position to Christine Robinson, a sitting public official.

Does this highly irregular arrangement not present a a series of new problems, namely:

  1. The Sarasota Board of County Commissioners (BCC) is now shadowed by the constant appearance that one of its members is paid to satisfy the objectives of a small private business organization at the same time she is paid to satisfy the public interest of the voters of Sarasota County.
  2. Decisions made by the BCC will be subject to retroactive challenges on the basis of Ms. Robinson’s ongoing Conflict of Interest — which could result in board decisions favored by The Argus Foundation being challenged in the courts or through other review.
  3. Key objectives of The Argus Foundation themselves are tarnished, as is the reputation of the group, when hired public servants find themselves aligned with the aims and policy preferences of one small part of their total electoral constituency.
  4. The political ambitions of those supporting this unusual move could be thwarted by voters moved to anger and disgust by this apparent disdain for their sense of public propriety.

Given this spectacle of cascading compromises — harmful to the Commissioner, to Argus, and to the reputation of Sarasota County at state, national and international levels — we ask you to disclose publicly why you took this most unusual step at this time. Did you fail to anticipate the strong public outcry? As you considered potential candidates, were you unable to find a single person with abilities comparable to those of Commissioner Robinson? Someone who might have taken on the Argus Foundation executive directorship without the burden of unwelcome political baggage and public relations headaches?

William W. Merrill, III, Argus Past President

As of this morning, 799 Sarasota County citizens have signed a Petition asking that Commissioner Robinson step down from one or the other of her posts, and more will sign. We have attached the Petition and list of signatories.

Unilaterally placing the County into a blatant conflict of interest has proven ill-conceived, arbitrary and self-defeating. It is one thing to pose as the strategic brain trust of Sarasota; it’s another to refuse even now to publicly acknowledge collateral damage resulting from the Foundation’s ill advised decision. Your credibility as a group, as business people, and as advisers in good standing is now seriously being questioned.

We ask you to provide your thinking in detail, and in all honesty, in answering this question: How does hiring a County Official as your executive director help the people of Sarasota County?

We’re listening.

Integrity 2016

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