Newsmakers


One on One: Collier County Commissioner Burt Saunders

“We have to look at reinventing local government.”

 

For his first 26 years in Collier County, Burt Saunders was in public service. Starting in 1982, the Virginia native went from county attorney to county commissioner, then state representative and, finally, a state senator. But when he was term- limited out of office in 2008, he didn’t leave the political arena behind entirely. Saunders joined GrayRobinson, one of the most influential lobbying firms in the state, and went right back to work for Collier County and NCH, among others. Now, after winning election in November, the 68-year-old attorney is back on the Collier County Board of Commissioners and ready to get to work.

 

On getting the commission focused

“First, sometimes the commission seems not to be really focused on the important issues. Lately it has been bogged down in the minutia and fights with the Clerk of Courts. That’s something we can resolve really quickly. All of the newly elected commissioners [of which Saunders is one of three] have made it a priority in the campaign to put that aside and get to work. I don’t think you are going to see the fighting any more. The county has wasted literally millions of dollars on this. You don’t see that in business. You don’t see one division of Coca-Cola suing another division of Coca-Cola, but that’s what we’ve had here.”

 

On what they should be doing

“Very quickly I want to start the process of renewing Conservation Collier, which expired in 2013. We need to ask the voters to renew those funds to protect valuable habitat and to use it as a tool to reduce some of the increase in population the county projects we’ll see in the coming years. We are projected to double the population so that the county east of (State Road) 951 is equal to that west of 951. That’s as many as 400,000 more people. So we need to create lands that can be used to expand the transfer of development rights to the areas we want to see developed. We can use the Conservation Collier program to manage growth and to focus it.”

 

On making Collier really work for businesses

“We need to make the county more business-friendly. And to do that we have to look at reinventing local government. I’ve been looking around the state and country for examples of how to make the county customer-focused. It shouldn’t take six months or a year to get the permits to open a business. We need to streamline the process.”

 

On how that means lessening some regulations

“I worked with a client who has several auto repair shops around the area. He wanted to open three more in Collier County, but it was going to cost almost 40 percent more than it would to do it in Lee County because of the standards applied to businesses. Or in Immokalee, there was a packaging plant that wanted to double the size of its packing house. But because there were architectural enhancements, not safety-related, to add on to a metal building, they didn’t do it. To require architectural enhancements on a metal building is a bit silly. You have to have standards, but you have to apply those standards in a rational way.”

 

How standards got where they are

“You have staff members making recommendations to the land development code. They draft it, write it, and when it gets passed it becomes part of the culture. So then they defend it. And it just goes around in circles. I’ve spent years working on behalf of clients. Eventually they are going to get what they want. But it’s going to cost them $150,000 in legal work.”

 

On continuing to lobby and conflicts of interest

“I’m stepping back lobbying where there is any connection to Collier County government or in the county. But at the same time, I am going to keep some clients, such as the Village of Estero and some corporate clients. Long before I got in the race, I looked at what needed to be done to avoid any conflicts. GrayRobinson won’t do any work for Collier County or for anyone being represented in front of Collier County. I went into this knowing I’m going to lose a lot of business.”