Tough Love

Yes, this is an amazing city. But we need the courage to tackle looming problems to keep it that way.

By Megan McDonald April 24, 2014

By Cooper Levey-Baker

For a reporter covering Florida politics, a healthy level of cynicism is practically a job requirement. But every now and then, against your better instincts, an issue comes along that fills you with something like hope. For me, that happened in 2010, when the City of Sarasota began exploring the possibility of taking over its power grid as a way to spur local green energy projects. The problem? To do it, the city would have to stand up to Florida Power & Light, which was demanding that the city grant the company a 30-year monopoly on energy service.

For a few months, the City Commission negotiated aggressively, pressing FPL to shorten that contract and offer other concessions. For me, the issue was simple. Why just hand over the city’s energy future to a corporation for three decades? With the pressing concerns of climate change and rising seas, not to mention our dearth of decent employment opportunities, it seemed to make perfect sense that the city wouldn’t want someone else dictating how its grid works. And it wasn’t just me. Activists and entrepreneurs were pressuring the city to ditch FPL and go its own way, and commissioners were asking tough questions.

The lesson: Don’t get your hopes up. On Nov. 1, 2010, the board voted 3-2 to approve the 30-year deal with FPL. The whoosh of disappointment in the commission chambers was audible. Was it an all-out catastrophe? No. But for me it marked a turning point. I haven’t been able to work up much excitement about any local proposals since.

The problem is we see what we want to see. We’re so committed to this idea that we live in a beautiful, wealthy, culturally rich city—all true, by the way—that it’s easy to ignore looming problems, from future changes in climate and energy needs to our miles of putrid strip malls, our dramatic inequality and our segregated neighborhoods. As long as we keep avoiding harsh truths and tackling tough problems, our future is at risk. Lots of people are perfectly OK with maintaining the status quo. I’m not.

Contributing editor Cooper Levey-Baker writes our monthly “Our Town” column.

Filed under