As Manatee continues to grow, oversight shouldn’t come from the public, officials say

A newly elected commissioner is sticking to a bold campaign promise that attempts to keep the community involved in growth decisions.

At Tuesday’s Board of County Commissioner meeting, Misty Servia introduced a rough draft of how a Citizens’ Growth Oversight Committee that she campaigned on might work. After the idea was previously rejected at a Dec. 18 meeting, she gave it another shot — this time with proposed committee bylaws.

“I want you all to set aside the political tensions and do the right thing,” Servia asked the board.

Commissioners commended Servia for her dedication to the voices of constituents but laid out a whole laundry list of issues they saw with its implementation.

As part of her presentation, Servia suggested that the committee be made up of a “cross-section” of Manatee residents from a wide variety of backgrounds. She said she has received 21 applications for the committee from a sign-up page on her campaign website.

The main purpose of the group, she explained, would be to receive more community feedback.

“The committee shall analyze the Comprehensive Plan, Land Development Code and long-range infrastructure needs of Manatee County, and collectively offer ideas and recommendation on the county’s future growth,” Servia said.

But not enough had changed since the last time Servia pitched the idea, commissioners said. Giving residents oversight over how growth is handled throughout the county would be a dangerous game, according to Commissioner Reggie Bellamy.

“We do listen, and knowing myself, everything is heard. We do keep public comment in mind. My thoughts on this is that we really need to make sure it’s very clear that we listen,” he said. “I’m not sure the oversight committee is how we ensure them of that.”

“I don’t think we should have another hurdle or a line we need to cross in order to say that they’re really guiding us, but we do need to ensure the community that we are listening to them,” Bellamy added.

If the goal is to hear from more residents, Commissioner Priscilla Whisenant Trace said, then the oversight committee falls short by choosing an arbitrary number.

“Do I talk to 100 percent of the people in my district? No, I don’t think anyone can, but this committee would only be 21 people with two or three from my district,” said Trace, who labeled the committee as “a deflection” last month.

“If you just do 21 people, then what about the other people left out?” Commissioner Betsy Benac asked.

Commissioner Carol Whitmore also took issue with giving the responsibility of growth management to another board.

“I can’t support this and the reason why is I don’t want to slough my job off to a committee,” Whitmore argued. “These are hard decisions you have to make, and if you aren’t listening to your constituents, you shouldn’t be up here.”

A common refrain during the discussion was that the community isn’t aware of why the county makes certain decision and the public may not know how to give their thoughts on upcoming projects. Trace suggested that the board may want to look into holding growth management workshops a few times a year for the public to have their questions about certain processes answered.

“Most citizens don’t know the (Comprehensive) plan or state laws,” said Commissioner Vanessa Baugh. “They just know they’re fed up with what we’re doing and they see it all the time.”

While some commissioners pointed out that public comment is encouraged and welcome at all meetings, Servia argued that the allotted three minutes isn’t enough time for the public to address the issues.

“It is not very convenient for people to come here, get three minutes to speak and then get told to sit down,” she said. “It’s just not.”

A compromise, Benac offered, could be for future education workshops to allow 10 minutes per resident or a back-and-forth dialogue with commissioners. In the meantime, Bellamy suggested that Servia begin a pilot version of her committee by holding regular meetings with her own constituents about growth concerns.

“I think there’s an opportunity for a pilot,” he said. “We have an opportunity to say you can have this ad hoc group and we can deal with them quarterly or maybe twice a year in a public session.”

Servia agreed to begin hosting meetings but said she would limit them to her own constituents in District 4, which encompasses the Southwest part of Manatee County.