BRADENTON – In 2010, we detailed the convoluted flow of money that traced back to local developers intent on seeing Michael Gallen defeated in his primary race with incumbent Gwen Brown. This time around, it's 22-year veteran Joe McClash who local developers are targeting on their most important political board, the county commission, which votes on Manatee County land use decisions.
If you're a builder, you often find yourself in front of the county commission, an elected body of public officials who vote on a broad array of local issues, one of which is land use. If you own land that is designated in the county's comprehensive plan as having no more than one house per acre and the changing economy increases the demand for less expensive housing, you might be tempted to apply for an amendment that allows you to develop it at four houses per acre or even greater density in order to build townhomes or condos.
If there are designated wetlands that you'd like to develop and want to strike a mitigation deal, this is also the board that you would go before. Same if you want to alter setback distances to an approved subdivision or you have a beef with impact fees. A development-friendly board that puts a high priority on building at all costs, can mean millions of dollars in extra profit and make properties that otherwise might not be attractive to develop, suddenly worth a second look.
Gallen campaigned on a platform that included a philosophy known as smart growth. It's based on the idea that the long-term development costs must be considered up front and that future costs of increasing the density of urban and suburban areas (roads, parks, water along with other infrastructure and services), as well as the long-term environmental consequences and their impact on our tourism-based economy, need to be part of the decision-making process. Clearly, this isn't exactly music to a developer's ears. They unleashed a torrent of negative and misleading ads against him, just days before the election.
Gallen was facing 16-year incumbent Gwen Brown, a reliable vote for the developers who funded her campaigns generously. Corporate interests have long circumvented Florida's campaign finance laws and their $500 donation limit, making it easy for a candidate with friends in high places to raise serious sums of money. A developer might have a dozen or so LLC's formed for various business purposes, and each one of them can give the $500 maximum before the primary, and again prior to the general election. They can also make personal contributions. So can every member of their family, corporate officers, and of course the sub-contractors who they regularly give work to and often encourage to kick in for the pro-growth cause.
However, that dough is just for the candidate's account. It pays for the puff pieces, the endless yard signs and billboards and positive messages on TV and radio. The hit pieces – the ones the candidate can distance themselves from and even disapprove of publicly, claiming no knowledge of or instruction on their behalf, come from the shadowy PAC's and Social Welfare Groups (issue-based non-profits that do not have to disclose their donors).
This can be daunting for a grass roots candidate lacking the kind of Rolodex that can raise that kind of campaign cash. And it's not surprising to see that every county commission race seems to once again have a developer-sponsored candidate facing off against a grass roots one, and the money disparity is striking. Even a candidate like Commissioner John Chappie, who doesn't have an opponent in either the general or primary election has raised more than $78,000.
In McClash's case, his opponent Betsy Benac is actually a Senior Project Planner for Benderson Development. She's raised nearly $80,000 as of the last filing date to McClash's ten. Most of the money is from large contributions from individuals and companies tied to land development – all legal and not surprising, given that she works in the industry and is facing someone with a smart-growth record.
Where McClash's real problems have come from are the malicious attack ads, funded by the same kind of developer groups that attacked Gallen and are now trying to take him down. A devout Catholic and lifelong Republican who's always been ardently pro-life, McClash has been accused of supporting such hot-buttoned issues as abortion, Obamacare and even illegal immigration. All of the attacks lead back to one place – 2212 58th Ave East in Bradenton, which also houses the many business interests of millionaire land developer Carlos Beruff, including his Medallion Homes offices, as well as 19 of his other development-related corporations which have given maximum donations to Benac's official campaign totaling $9,500.
2212 58th Ave East is also the address listed for something called Florida West Coast Holdings, the lone financier of Take Back Our Government, the group financing the attack ads. Take Back our Government's chairman is Robert Waechter, who sits on the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority – the same one chaired by Beruff. The similarities do not end there. According to campaign expense reports for each, both the official campaign of Benac and the attacks by Take Back Our Government use the same D.C. area marketing company, Political Ink, and are mailed by the same Virginia-based firm – Rickland Direct.
The dots connecting Manatee County developers to an effort to unseat Commissioner McClash are too close to squeeze a corporate credit card through – and for good reason. For several years, developers have been able to count on a strong majority of the board to vote in favor of nearly every single application they've brought forward, no matter how controversial and amid any amount of resident protest.
However, in 2010, their 6-1 majority fell to 4-3 as Robin Disabatino and Michael Gallen have proven themselves to be smart-growth votes on most land use issues. With embattled District 1 commissioner Larry Bustle, perhaps the most consistent pro-development vote on the board, facing challenges in both the primary and general elections, 2012 could see the commission swing back to a smart-growth majority. And it should be pointed out that it was never difficult to build houses in Manatee County, even when that was the case. But a solid lock on any issue would seem a difficult thing to give up, and developers are spending big money to see that it stays that way. Not surprisingly, it turns out that Mr. Beruff and his enterprises are also among Commissioner Bustle's biggest benefactors.
Disclosure: Joe McClash is the owner and publisher of The Bradenton Times Inc. However, he has no editorial role in the publication. All decisions on content are made by Dennis Maley, Editor in Chief. He can be reached at email@example.com. A similar article also ran in a competing publication.
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