Do you ever wonder why county commissioners seem to pay more attention to development interests than to views expressed by the general public? Read this important new story from the News-Press, which looks into the influence development interests may be gaining by their outsized role in funding campaigns for Lee County commissioners.
Originally published by David Dorsey in The News-Press on Dec. 3, 2020
Growth, development interests heavily fund Lee County commissioner campaigns
Three of the last five elected Lee County commissioners garnered at least 40% of their campaign contributions from people or companies involved in the growth and development industry.
This was largest and most lucrative of the other special interest groups examined, the others being environmental, tourism and hospitality, and human and health services in searching campaign finance databases, which are public records.
The growth and development dollars includes builders, construction contractors, Realtors, developers, engineers and planners.
This surge in development dollars coincided with the Lee County government and commission reversing itself in recommending and rezoning agricultural land to mining in southeast county last year after denying the rezoning in 2009-10.
The pro-mining decision reversals demonstrated how political campaign contributions can change public policy, said Ray Judah, a former county commissioner who had voted against the mine a decade ago.
Judah lost his re-election bid to the late Larry Kiker in 2012. Kiker received 52% of his campaign funds from growth and development interests.
“All you have to do is follow the money trail of Brian Hamman and Cecil Pendergrass,” Judah said. “They receive huge sums of money from attorneys and contractors and operators for developers. They are pro-deregulation. It’s really painful, because when I was on the commission and when I was a planner, I spent a great deal of time trying to find appropriate sites for mining to prevent conflict with residential homes and protect the environment. This commission has undone all of that.”
The five most recently elected commissioners received at least a combined $3,900 of their combined $1.1 million in campaign contributions from environmental special interests, or about 0.35 percent. This compares to at least a combined $387,792 in growth and development interest money, about 34.65%.
Brian Hamman had the largest percentage of growth and development dollars at 55%, receiving $82,010 of his $147,150 from those interests during his 2018 campaign.
Ray Sandelli had the second-highest percentage at 47%, with $84,150 of his $177,061 coming from growth and development donors during his 2020 campaign.
Cecil Pendergrass received the most money from growth and development-industry workers, at $148,000, which was 40% of his $363,933, a record in campaign fundraising for a Lee County commissioner he set in 2018.
These three commissioners and outgoing member John Manning, who received 24% of his funds from growth and development interests, voted 4-1 in favor of rezoning the Troyer Brothers potato farm to become a proposed rock mine in what historically has been a designated groundwater recharge area.
Frank Mann, who received 13% of his funds, $9,150 of $69,765, from growth and development interests, was the lone member voting no, repeating his no vote from a decade prior.
A decade ago, former members of the commission voted against allowing a mine to proceed on land located between State Road 82 and Corkscrew Road in the southeastern part of the county.
Sandelli, citing ongoing lawsuits against Lee County over his pro-mine vote, declined to comment for this story.
“He feels his voting record is based on applying the laws as they are written and what is in the best interest of the community,” said Charlotte Codie, Sandelli’s executive assistant.
Hamman declined to be interviewed for this story.
“As a native of Lee County, Commissioner Brian Hamman makes his decisions based off what is in the best interest of its residents,” said Matt Spielman, Hamman’s executive assistant.
Pendergrass declined to be interviewed for this story as well. He released a statement through his executive assistant. It said: “I make zoning decisions based on competent and substantial evidence within the purview of the law. Financial donations have no bearing on my policy making decisions. In fact, I have voted for and against contributors’ projects. My financial support is very diverse and representative of the whole community, and I will continue to make sound decisions in the best interests of all Lee County citizens.”
Mann did not return emails seeking comment.
“It’s a perfect case study of two things that transpired,” said Peter Bergerson, a political science professor at FGCU with more than 40 years of teaching experience. “One, is a change in the environment and the attitude from the commission toward the environment and surface water in particular.
“Second, the cost of political campaigns. The application of the golden rule. To me, it looks pretty straightforward that developers had a major influence in the changing of the decision, coupled with the change in attitude toward the environment. You’ve had a transformation on the commission. This has been brought about by a change in funding from special interest groups that will benefit from the public policies.”
When Lee County held a public hearing about the mine in August 2019, residents spoke against it. None of the residents had funded any of the commissioners’ campaigns, records show. But Troyer Brothers, the owner of the land, and some of the lawyers and engineers on his payroll, had funded all of the yes-voting commissioners’ campaigns, records show.
On Sept. 24, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity issued its final order on a case involving Lee County’s 2019 Mining Lee Plan Amendments. The order affirmed the decision of an administrative law judge that Lee County staff’s work and county commissioners’ actions were consistent with land-use laws.
“The environmental voice and the general public – I wouldn’t say they are locked out of the process – but their voices don’t carry the weight that the major contributors have made,” Bergerson said. “You connect the dots. There’s just no question that campaign contributions are made as an investment. A business investment or a political investment. They want their point of view represented with people who are in influential positions.”
Kevin Ruane, a newcomer to the commission who was serving as the mayor of Sanibel at the time of the Troyer Brothers vote, said he had not reviewed the documents related to that vote and therefore would not comment. But he did discuss his campaign contributions. He set a goal to raise $300,000, and he raised $361,204. Of that, at least $63,848 (17%) came from growth and development interests.
“We raised about $85,000 in my political action committee,” Ruane said. “We raised about $100,000 from contributors who do business with me that have nothing to do with Lee County. So I funded it a little bit differently than most. It certainly complements what I try to do and what I profess to be. Real estate companies. Money from developers. Money from environmentalists … I don’t feel beholden to either. Secondarily, I didn’t necessarily ask for the help of anybody.
“I want to protect the environment. I think we need to do more with less.”
Ruane said some of his votes might anger environmentalists, and others might anger developers.
“I can’t necessarily vote with my heart,” Ruane said. “I vote with the facts. I’ll make sure whatever the county attorney tells me, I’ll verify it. Lee County is coming off facing $200 million in lawsuits from the commissioners before Kiker and Pendergrass. I can’t necessarily expose the taxpayers of Lee County. I want to serve the public and make the best decisions for the public.”
All five of the current commissioners are registered Republicans, but Bergerson said the issue of campaign financing influencing public policy wasn’t a partisan one. Democrats do it, too, he said.
“It’s not a party issue,” Bergerson said. “It’s a public policy issue. It’s only reflective of one party here because one party is overly dominant in the area. It’s not something that you can attribute to the Republican party or the Democratic party. It’s a reflection of the competitive nature of politics. You have one collection of special interest groups that will join forces through their contributions.
“There’s a vacuum in leadership on environmental issues. These developers and associated groups have filled that vacuum. Once the decision is made, that decision is not going to be overturned. I don’t think so. It would take a protracted and expensive legal fight to challenge that decision.”
— Janie Haseman of USA Today contributed to this report.
Connect with this reporter: David Dorsey (Facebook), @DavidADorsey (Twitter).