‘None of the above’ wins city manager race

Lewis plans to leave interim post

Interim City Manager Terry Lewis (left) and Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown (Photo by Norman Schimmel)

Sarasota City commissioners failed to agree on a new city manager on July 2 and voted to begin the search anew. It’s been nearly seven months since commissioners accepted the resignation of then-City Manager Bob Bartolotta on Jan. 17.

Although former State Sen. Bob Johnson alleged on Oct. 13, 2011 that Bartolotta erased public emails at city hall, a forensic examination costing more than $150,000 has failed to turn up any “smoking gun” to validate the accusation. But the charge was a final straw in a fierce bureaucratic struggle between Bartolotta and City Auditor and Clerk Pam Nadalini in City Hall.

With Bartolotta out, commissioners asked Terry Lewis to serve as acting city manager. With reluctance, Lewis took the job. He previously served as interim Sarasota County manager, interim North Port City manager, and North Port Police chief, following a distinguished career in law enforcement.

The delay in soliciting new candidates could take many more weeks. Lewis anticipated retiring almost two years ago, and he did not think the Sarasota city job would last this long. He told The Sarasota News Leader he plans to step down in mid-August after the return of Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown from his annual vacation.

Lewis is urging the commission to appoint Brown as the interim city manager. However, Johnson’s allegations included Brown in the as-yet-unproven email-erasing mischief, so it is unclear if the commission would accept Brown for the job.

A hastily scheduled meeting is set for Tuesday afternoon, July 10, to discuss who should be the new interim city manager after Lewis’ departure. Presumably, commissioners also will discuss what they want in a permanent city manager. As of Friday morning, the agenda was unclear.

The start time of that meeting is uncertain, because it will follow a “shade” (e.g. out-of-the-sunshine) meeting starting at 1 p.m. to discuss the possible settlement of a lawsuit. The city manager discussion will follow when the doors are opened to let the public listen. Also unknown is whether public participation will be allowed.

The opaque process

The commissioners and citizens labored to decide what qualities they wanted in a new city manager. Eventually, the advertisement was concluded and the headhunter – Baenziger and Associations of Wellington, Fla. – conducted a nationwide search. More than 100 candidates applied. The consultant narrowed that field down to eight, and then the commissioners narrowed the list to five.

The five were invited to come to Sarasota at the end of June for interviews with citizens, city staffers and the commissioners. A 90-minute meet-and-greet social event for the candidates was held on June 29; it was attended by about 60 people.

While a headhunting consultant promised five finalists for the city manager’s job, by July 2 the field was down to three. One accepted a job elsewhere, and another voluntarily withdrew after the social and interviews. The three survivors were the city manager of Daytona Beach, the city manager of West Palm Beach, and the former city manager of Oak Park, Ill.

Only once during this lengthy process did any of commissioners give a public indication of what they were looking for in the next manager. That occasion was when Vice Mayor Willie Shaw, offered his nomination speech for Tom Barwin of Oak Park on the afternoon of July 2. He praised Barwin’s management style, background as a policeman and familiarity with the arts.

City Commissioner Terry Turner seconded the nomination for Barwin. Turner said he was leery of the Daytona Beach candidate, citing several controversies that had been ill-handled. Turner also rapped the West Palm Beach candidate for “a history of corruption in his community.”

City Commissioner Paul Caragiulo nominated Daytona Beach’s James Chisholm, and Mayor Suzanne Atwell nominated West Palm’s Ed Mitchell. With no further discussion, the vote was taken:

Barwin: 2 (Shaw and Turner)

Chisolm: 1 (Caragiulo)

Mitchell: 1 (Atwell)

City Commissioner Shannon Snyder did not vote for any of the candidates.

Snyder said, “I would suggest we put this whole thing back out again. This is too big a decision and too expensive a mistake if we do it wrong.”

“I’m very comfortable with Mr. Barwin,” said Turner. “But the [city] charter is very explicit. It takes four of us to appoint. The only consensus I’m seeing is to search further. It’s not my choice, but we do need to have that consensus.”

“I’m a bit disappointed we did not come to a place of resolution,” said Shaw. “I will go with the majority. I have no choice.”

Snyder then moved to “seek other candidates with a further search.” The motion was seconded by Caragiulo, and it passed 4-1, with Shaw in the minority.

Following the victory of “none of the above” in that meeting, commissioners met individually with the headhunter to hammer out – in private – their aspirations for a permanent city manager. It is possible their comments may be aired publicly at the July 10 meeting.

Answering the call of greed

So far, 100 candidates up and 100 candidates down. As the July 2 afternoon commission session drew to a close, during commissioner comments, Turner said, “We’ll need to broaden the pool to get a different set of candidates. Do we have to pay a little more?”

As the evening session opened, Colin Baenzinger came before the City Commission to ask for guidance. In the chamber were more than 100 police officers and their families, ready to express bitter disagreement with how the city was proposing to handle their pensions.

Tension was high as Baenzinger said, “We need to do something to change the parameters to get a different group of candidates. The obvious thing to do is increase the salary range.”

“I would like to talk to the commissioners [individually] tomorrow and recommend we increase the salary range from $150,000 to $180,000 to $220,000 to $250,000 at the top. Raising the top is your most obvious move.”

A gasp raced through the audience. While police officers were struggling with their finances, they just heard a $21,500 consultant suggest giving the city manager a raise of $100,000.

“I can’t think of a worse time to have this conversation,” said Caragiulo.

The mayor dismissed Baenzinger by saying, “Obviously, we won’t deliberate this now.”

1 thought on “‘None of the above’ wins city manager race

  1. I always wonder if local candidates are being considered. I mean, we are always wondering why wages in Sarasota are so low, and then we have these expensive and elaborate searches for out-of-town candidates who have deep-seated defects that we just don’t KNOW about . . .

    Ignorance is bliss?

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