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News Section: Opinion

It Takes a Village, But They Can Move a Mountain

Published Sunday, January 26, 2014 12:10 am

It's easy to get discouraged when it comes to political activism, where it seems that all too often the good guys lose. And while working for a publication that focuses on local government can be a good way to grow cynical, it also gives you a front row seat to the occasional victory pulled off by the little guy. This week, a beloved local beach was spared because a handful of people stood up to some ham-fisted plans that would have needlessly sacrificed it.

Beer Can Island is one of the coolest places in Manatee County, if not SW Florida. It's a serene little corner of uninhabited space that is only accessible by boat and though you can almost throw a rock to the surrounding land masses, once ashore it's as close to a deserted island as you're likely to find. It's a little sliver of paradise – complete with a naturally-occurring lazy river – that was deeded to the county with a mandate to be preserved.

Unbeknownst to many people who enjoy it, all of that splendor was in danger of being sacrificed in order to continue to attempt to fight the encroaching sand and surf from continuing to threaten two, old and poorly-conceived condominium structures. As often happens, the plans were hatched quietly and strategically timed in a way that made public opposition (indeed public awareness) highly unlikely. But a handful of people set the wheels in motion to literally and figuratively turn the tides.

TBT publisher Joe McClash was the first person to challenge the permit and he later enlisted the help of the local Sierra Club to join the fight. The Bradenton Times provided a lone voice in terms of honest and thorough coverage of the issue and soon a small coalition of nearby residents and boating enthusiasts also joined the cause. The matter was scheduled to go before an administrative law judge this week when the town agreed to settle the complaint and withdraw from its plans the huge, concrete terminal groin it had planned to build across Beer Can Island's shore.

That outcome seemed less than likely at the beginning. The town had already received conditional approval for its application and had the benefit of a 30-day public comment period that fell over the winter holiday period when it was most likely to go unnoticed. However, a little bit of noise went a long way. The comment period was eventually extended, support grew and for at least the next five years, that slice of paradise is safe.

The victory is a case study in what is possible when even a few people band together and refuse to accept the idea that it's just too hard to fight the government. The odds were not in their favor to be sure. McClash, who has the benefit of 22 years as a county commissioner and all of the institutional knowledge of how the system works that goes along with it, said that it was still very daunting to navigate the process without a team of $300 an hour attorneys to get things done.

Yes, the public is at a sincere disadvantage when it comes to fighting the system, especially as you move up the line in terms of the size of a government body. But the other lesson is this: it's not that hard to win, once you start making noise. For all of their seeming unwillingness to consider public opinion, public officials do not like organized opposition and in just the past year, Manatee County activists have racked up an impressive list of victories.

It was a small handful of such vehement activists who brought down an incompetent public school administration and uncovered tens of millions of dollars in mismanaged funds. While most of the stakeholders were willing to take the official line being given to them by the administrators and much of the school board – while most of the press was complicit in perpetuating the false reality being sold – those activists fought on until the shell game was finally exposed and the house of cards tumbled.

When the county wanted to pass a half-cent sales tax in order to keep some very influential interests enriched by the status quo on indigent health care, there was only a small group of activists working to expose the conflicts of interest, the propaganda ads about property tax cuts and the reality regarding taxpayers' return on investment. In most cases, the well-funded special interests who'd organized an expensive, strategically-timed election would have prevailed – especially since they once again had the duplicity of the mainstream press on their side. Still, voters were successfully able to see through the fog and turn them back, mostly because of citizens working hard to expose the truth.

When an extremely consequential text amendment was proposed and an influential developer wanted to get amendments to future use maps that would have allowed for a giant marina and hotel on one of the most ecologically fragile portions of our bayfront, it was again a relatively small portion of a very large county that stood up and said no, and at least for now, the area known as Long Bar Pointe appears to be mostly safe from environmental devastation.

Fighting the government isn't easy, especially when it so often seems aligned or at least intertwined with the special interests pushing the most flagrant issues. Both sides have armies of attorneys and other full-time personnel who navigate the system on a daily basis. Average taxpayers are obviously not on a level playing field and because they have only a quality-of-life stake in most of these issues, the one thing that makes navigating that system easier – money – isn't likely to be lined up on their side either.

Yet as these cases demonstrate, it can be done, mostly because the last thing most politicians want to see is a thousand people lined up to protest, like they were at the meeting for Long Bar Pointe. Getting the ball rolling might be tough, but in many cases all you need is a little forward momentum and they'll lay down their arms. So keep fighting the good fight Manatee County. One by one the victories will continue to pile up and while the people will never win every just fight, imagine where we would be today, had we already lost the will to stand up for a cause.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.

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