Growth and Development Interests Fund Lee County Commissioners’ Campaigns

Three of Lee County’s last five elected commissioners have obtained at least 40% of their campaign contributions from individuals or businesses involved in the growth and development industry.

It was the largest and most lucrative of the other special interest groups examined, the others being the environment, tourism and hospitality, and human and health services in the funding database search campaigns, which are public records.

Growth and development dollars include builders, building contractors, real estate agents, developers, engineers, and planners.

This increase in development dollars coincided with the Lee County government and commission reversing it by recommending and rezoning agricultural land for mining in Southeast County last year after refusing rezoning in 2009-10.

The reversals of pro-mining rulings demonstrated how political campaign contributions can change public policy, said Ray Judah, a former county commissioner who 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 financial trail of Brian Hamman and Cecil Pendergrass,” Judah said. “They get huge sums of money from lawyers, contractors and operators for developers. They are pro-deregulation. It’s really painful, because when I was a member of the commission and when I was a planner, I spent a lot of time trying to find suitable sites for mining in order to avoid conflicts with the residences and to protect the environment. This commission undid all that.

The five most recently elected commissioners received at least a combined $3,900 of their combined $1.1 million in environmental special interest campaign contributions, or about 0.35%. That compares to at least $387,792 combined in growth and development interest money, or about 34.65%.

Brian Hamman had the highest 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 in his 2020 campaign.

Cecil Pendergrass received the most money from workers in the growth and development industry, at $148,000, or 40% of his $363,933, a campaign fundraising record for a county commissioner. Lee which he established in 2018.

These three commissioners and outgoing member John Manning, who received 24% of its funds from growth and development interests, voted 4 to 1 in favor of rezoning the Troyer Brothers potato farm so that it becomes a proposed rock mine in what has always been a designated groundwater recharge. Region.

Frank Mann, who received 13% of his funds, $9,150 of $69,765, from growth and development interests, was the only member to vote no, repeating his no vote from a decade prior.

A decade ago, former commission members voted against allowing a mine to be mined on land between State Road 82 and Corkscrew Road in the southeast part of the county.

Sandelli, citing pending lawsuits against Lee County over its pro-mine vote, declined to comment for this story.

“He believes his voting record is based on following the laws as they are written and what is in the best interest of the community,” said Charlotte Codie, executive assistant to Sandelli.

Hamman declined to be interviewed for this story.

“As a native of Lee County, Commissioner Brian Hamman makes his decisions based on what is in the best interests of his residents,” said Matt Spielman, Executive Assistant to Hamman.

Pendergrass also declined to be interviewed for this story. He released a statement through his executive assistant. It said: “I make zoning decisions based on competent and substantial evidence within the law. Financial donations have no bearing on my political decisions. In fact, I have voted for and against the projects of the contributors. My financial support is very diverse and representative of the broader community, and I will continue to make wise decisions in the best interest of all citizens of Lee County.”

Mann did not return emails seeking comment.

“It’s a perfect case study of two things that happened,” said Peter Bergerson, a political science professor at FGCU with more than 40 years of teaching experience. “The first is a change in the environment and the commission’s attitude towards the environment and surface waters in particular.

“Second, the cost of political campaigns. The application of the golden rule. To me, it seems quite simple that the developers had a major influence on the decision change, coupled with the change in attitude towards the environment. You had a transformation of the commission. It was brought about by a change in the funding of special interest groups that will benefit from public policies.

When Lee County held a public hearing on the mine in August 2019, residents spoke out 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 its payroll, had funded all of the pollsters’ yes campaigns, records show.

On September 24, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity issued its final order on a case involving Lee County’s 2019 Mining Plan Amendments. The order upheld an administrative law judge’s ruling that the work of Lee County staff and the actions of county commissioners complied with land use laws.

“The environmental voice and the general public — I wouldn’t say they’re excluded from the process — but their voices don’t carry the weight that the major contributors did,” Bergerson said. “You’re connecting the dots. There’s no doubt that campaign contributions are made as an investment. A business investment or a political investment. They want their views represented by people in positions of influence.”

Kevin Ruane, a newcomer to the commission who served as mayor of Sanibel at the time of the Troyer Brothers’ vote, said he had not reviewed documents related to that vote and therefore would not comment. But he discussed his contributions to the campaign. He set a goal to raise $300,000 and he raised $361,204. Of this amount, at least $63,848 (17%) was from growth and development interests.

Kevin Ruane is sworn in as the new Lee County Commissioner Tuesday, November 17, 2020 in Fort Myers.

“We raised about $85,000 in my political action committee,” Ruane said. “We raised about $100,000 from contributors who do business with me who have nothing to do with Lee County, so I funded it a little differently than most. That certainly complements what I trying to do and what I claim to be Real estate companies Money from developers, money from environmentalists… I don’t feel indebted either… Secondarily, I didn’t necessarily ask for help from anybody.

“I want to protect the environment. I think we have to do more with less.”

Ruane said some of his votes might irritate environmentalists and others might irritate developers.

“I can’t necessarily vote with my heart,” Ruane said. “I vote with the facts. I will make sure that anything the county attorney tells me, I will verify. Lee County is set to face $200 million in lawsuits from commissioners before Kiker and Pendergrass. I can’t necessarily expose Lee County taxpayers. I want to serve the public and make the best decisions for the public.

All five current commissioners are registered Republicans, but Bergerson said the issue of campaign finance influencing public policy is nonpartisan. Democrats do too, he said.

“It’s not a party thing,” Bergerson said. “It’s a matter of public policy. It only reflects one party here because one party is too dominant in the area. It’s not something you can attribute to the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. C This is a reflection of the competitive nature of politics.You have a collection of special interest groups that will join forces through their contributions.

“There is a void in leadership on environmental issues. These developers and associated groups have filled that void. Once the decision is made, this decision will not be reversed. I don’t think so. It would take a long and expensive legal process . fight to challenge this decision.”

— USA Today’s Janie Haseman contributed to this report.

Connect with this reporter: David Dorsey (Facebook), @DavidADorsey (Twitter).

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