MANATEE — Joe McClash was first elected to the Manatee County commission in 1990, and in the 20 years since has made thousands of decisions on behalf of his constituents.
But when it comes to revisions of the county’s comprehensive plan, which McClash called the “soul of our community,” McClash said there is a place for residents to affirm or veto decisions made by elected officials — especially as a needed counterweight against the influence of developers.
McClash on Wednesday became the first county commissioner in the state to publicly endorse the Hometown Democracy campaign’s effort to change the Florida Constitution to require voter approval of changes to localities’ comprehensive plans.
At a rally in front of the old Manatee County courthouse, McClash said voter approval of Amendment 4 this November would provide a needed check on the influence of developers and other monied interests who try to sway elections with contributions to favored candidates. At least 60 percent of voters will have to approve of the measure for it to take effect.
“As a county commissioner for a number of years now, I have seen the influence of special interest groups, primarily developers who have spent a lot of money to get certain people elected in this community,” McClash said. “Unfortunately, with that comes sometimes expectations to pay back that contribution in the form of votes for changing comprehensive plans, which is a very sacred thing in our county.
“It’s really the soul of our community. A comprehensive plan is not a zoning plan, it’s our future plan, it’s the plan that protects our environment, it’s the plan that protects our water.”
About two dozen people attended the mid-afternoon rally, including a representative of the Sierra Club who applauded McClash’s endorsement.
Sandra Ripberger said the measure would “provide significant protection to the environment, our wetlands, wildlife, green space.”
Dan Lobeck, a local land-use lawyer involved in the Hometown Democracy campaign, said voters need to have the ability to directly approve or reject changes to comprehensive plans.
“All too often they get amended not because a change is a good change, but because some particular vested interest thinks they can profit from that change at the expense of the rest of us,” Lobeck said.
Critics have argued that Amendment 4 would further cripple the down economy by unnecessarily putting brakes on development. However, McClash countered there usually is no need for quick approval of changes to comprehensive plans and giving the voters a role would protect the quality of life in local communities and statewide.
“Amendment 4 puts the people more in touch with what is going on in their communities,” he said.
At the rally and in a written statement, McClash singled out developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch as an example of a developer who has profited from the current system. SMR, as well as other developers, in 2008 supported the successful election campaigns of commissioners Larry Bustle and John Chappie, who were considered more sympathetic to developers than the two incumbents they ousted.
“Could it be the monetary reward from SMR influenced a most recent comp plan change that increased their residential density almost six times what it was before their political contributions?” McClash said in his statement. “Was it made possible by a more ‘developer friendly’ Board of County Commissioners after the last election?”
McClash also said approval of Amendment 4 would give voters input on a proposal from the city of Bradenton — long backed by SMR — to change the county comprehensive plan to allow the use of reclaimed sewer wastewater on landscaping in the Braden River watershed, the source of the city’s drinking water.
Candice McElyea, a spokeswoman for SMR, responded in an e-mail to McClash’s comments.
“If voters want evidence of what Amendment 4 will do to the economy, they might learn from history in the state — like in Pinellas County where a similar measure was so detrimental to the economical development, residents are trying to repeal it! We need to support measures that will bring more jobs to the state and stimulate the economy, not paralyze business and increase unemployment. But we’re confident voters will make the right decision,” she said.