Three seats on Lee County Commission up for grabs
There will be Republican primaries Aug. 18 in all three of the seats up for election on the Lee County Board of County Commissioners.
Two of the three seats will also feature a Democratic challenger in the November election while all three also have write-in candidates.
Much of the discussion among the candidates is whether they support continued development in a fast-growing county, and how they believe that should continue.
In District 1, incumbent John Manning is vacating the seat which is being sought by City of Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane, Matlacha/Pine Island Fire Control Board Vice Chair Michael Dreikorn. Florida Gulf Coast University student and write-in candidate Kelsey Hotchkiss has also qualified. Dreikorn and Ruane will face off in the Republican primary. There is no Democratic candidate.
District 3 Republican Commissioner Ray Sandelli, who was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to fill the seat of the late Larry Kiker, is being challenged by Village of Estero Councilmember Nicholas Batos in a Republican primary. Democrat Todd Truax awaits the winner in the fall. FGCU write-in candidate Molly Hannigan also qualified.
In District 5, incumbent Frank Mann faces a Republican primary challenge from Steven “Sonny” Haas. Democrat Rev. Juan Gonzalez will square off with the winner in November. Write-in candidate Kayley McHugh also qualified.
Dreikorn, an Army veteran who has worked in the aerospace and defense industry, said he will bring “critical thinking” to the Board of County Commissioners and will “challenge the status quo.”
Dreikorn stressed that he has a “commitment to protect our natural resources.” He said the county commissioners have not done enough on that issue.
“I don’t see a lot of champions” for protecting natural resources on the board, he said.
In explaining his decision to run, Dreikorn said “I don’t like bullies. I don’t like the clique.”
Ruane, who manages financial lending firms in five states, touted his record in lowering the debt in Sanibel from approximately $100 million to about $18 million since taking office 14 years ago.
Ruane cited water quality as a key issue, noting that he introduced a septic system on Sanibel which has 100% of properties hooked in.
“I think we need to preserve the environment,” he said. “I support necessary development, not overdevelopment.”
Sandelli and Batos have drawn distinctions between themselves with Batos stressing his concerns about overdevelopment, while Sandelli has voted in favor of development such as the Bay Harbour Marina on San Carlos Island.
“The reason I’m running is the Lee County commissioners the last five years have been going in the wrong direction,” Batos said. “I believe we are overdeveloping our county too quickly.”
Batos said overdevelopment is leading to “overcrowded roads and schools.”
Batos has also objected to actions by the commissioners to expand lime rock mining in the county.
Sandelli, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and who was deployed in operations during the Yom Kippur War, has been on the board for about a year and has spent the last several months making decisions regarding the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The board has chosen to not take overly restrictive measures as some have called for, opting not to require masks or close beaches over the July 4 weekend.
Sandelli advocated for increased funding from the county’s share of the CARES to assist individuals, businesses and food pantries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a challenging time to step into this position,” Sandelli said. “I’ve been to a dozen food (pantries). You see (the need) very personally.”
Sandelli, who is a managing partner with Commercial Real Estate Consultants, said he understood concerns about overdevelopment.
“The question is how do we grow? We are a state of people wanting to come here. You really can’t stop that.”
Truax said the top issue is COVID-19 and cited his past experience in the health care field as an administrator. If elected as a county commissioner, Truax said he would push for an immediate ordinance requiring masks.
“We’ve lost over 200 people in Lee County and they are doing nothing about it,” Truax said. “It will cost nothing and save lives.”
Truax said the commissioners have given “free rein to developers” and called for a “plan for smart growth.”
For Mann, a former state legislator and lifelong resident of Lee County, his goal is “to preserve the beauty of Lee County.”
He said he is doing everything he can “to protect this paradise.”
Mann remarked that he is frequently outvoted 4-1 by his fellow commissioners on development issues.
“We’re going to have development. We can do it right or we can do it wrong.”
Mann said he is proud that the county has been able to preserve thousands of acres through the county’s Conservation 20/20 program.
“The county I grew up in was so full of natural beauty,” he said. “The pressure of growth is so enormous. It takes constant vigil and a caring heart.”
The race has seen a bit of controversy.
Haas, a self-described “diehard Republican” who has rejected calls for him to quit the race by some in the county’s Republican Party leadership, has dealt with controversy over an email in which he described a conversation and invoked that person’s alleged use of a racial slur.
Haas has said it was a setup.
“I was quoting what was said to me,” Haas said. “That’s where I made my mistake. I didn’t quote it properly.”
Mann said he was “stunned when I read his quote.” Mann said there is no “explaining or condoning what he said” in the email.
Haas, whose trucking firm specializes in hauling roofing material debris, said his main issue is to ensure that development in Lehigh Acres is for homeowners as more people move there.
Gonzalez said he is running because “I think we can do better.”
A native of New York and the pastor of Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Lehigh Acres, Gonzalez has been involved in projects in Florida and Ohio to use government funds to expand affordable housing.
Gonzalez said “sometimes we are the change that we want to see.”