The charter crisis

For two years, the City of Sarasota has not had a bona fide city clerk and auditor. The charter is explicit: “The city manager, the city auditor and clerk … and the finance director shall each give bond with authorized corporate sureties, conditioned upon their faithful performance of duty.”

This month The Sarasota News Leader reported City Auditor and Clerk Pam Nadalini does not have a bond, as required by the charter, and she has not had a bond since she took the office, in spite of the requirements of the charter.

During the Monday, June 18, City Commission meeting, Mayor Suzanne Atwell asked City Attorney Bob Fournier, “Are we in non-compliance in regarding the bonding of our city auditor and clerk? I’d like an explanation.”

“Technically, and everybody knows now, the clerk does not have a bond,” Fournier said. “Yes, she is not in compliance with the charter.”

Five city commissioners sat there and learned officially that one of their “charter officials” was “not in compliance with the charter.” Not one of them said a word. When Fournier was finished, City Commissioner Paul Caragiulo asked whether an insurance policy was “functionally equivalent” to a bond. Fournier agreed that it was. And that was the end of the discussion.

The oath

Flashback to May 13, 2011 — the day three new city commissioners were sworn into office by Nadalini: “Would you please raise your right hand. I – state your name – do solemnly swear I will support, protect and defend the Constitution and government of the United States and the State of Florida and the Charter and the Ordinances of the City of Sarasota, Florida ….”

One of the explicit duties of the Office of Auditor and Clerk is to “administer oaths required or authorized under any law, the Charter, or ordinance of the city.” That’s in Section 5, “Powers and duties,” Subsection L.

That leads to puzzlement. If the person “authorized” to administer the oath was not a legitimate office-holder, is the oath valid? Are Vice Mayor Willie Shaw and City Commissioners Paul Caragiulo and Shannon Snyder officially sworn into office? Do their votes over the past year really count?

It gets worse. City officials have known for two years Nadalini could not get a bond, and they didn’t bother to tell the City Commission. And during that time, they lobbied to have the bonding requirement eliminated.

Former City Manager Bob Bartolotta told the News Leader that when Nadalini first failed to secure a bond, the situation led to a discussion about how to eliminate the requirement for a bond and substitute an insurance policy instead. First step: Get the insurance policy.

That was done, a $5 million policy in case any senior city staffer went off to Patagonia with the general fund receipts, for example. On the bond front, Bartolotta went before the city’s Charter Review Committee to lobby for elimination of the bond requirement. He did not mention Nadalini’s problem. Instead, the matter was presented as “housekeeping.”

The charter committee approved the “housekeeping amendment” unanimously, but gave senior city staffers a choice: either a bond or insurance. That plan passed the City Commission, also unanimously, and will appear on the November ballot for approval by city voters. But when voting on the change, the City Commission also didn’t know Nadalini had a bonding problem.

The friction

Was this a cover-up? Bartolotta doesn’t believe it was. “I don’t think that was the reason for the charter change,” he said. “I don’t think the two are related.”

But when the time came for Nadalini’s annual bond review and she failed again, Bartolotta was more forward. On Sept. 29, 2011, the city’s insurance agent of record – Paul Dawson – informed city staffer Larry Hobbs that Nadalini again could not get a bond, and Bartolotta was told about this. “When it came up a second time, it was ticklish,” he said. “So I documented it.”

Bartolotta sent Nadalini a memo: “Larry indicated that he was unable last year to obtain this required bond, and that he had given you the name of the insurance agent to follow up since the financial information upon which a bond is based is not shared with anyone other than the applicant.

“I am concerned that we are not following the required provision of the charter. I know that this provision in the charter is proposed to be changed but the soonest that can happen will be November 2012. In the meantime we have to figure out a way to get this resolved. I would suggest that you contact Paul Dawson immediately and find out what it would take for you to get the required surety bond,” his memo said.

By this time, the two charter officials were at odds. Eventually, Nadalini would engineer Bartolotta’s ouster. But it is worth noting, during this bureaucratic fight to the death, Bartolotta never once informed the City Commission that his adversary might not legitimately be a charter official.

The future

City Attorney Fournier on June 18 told the City Commission, “I don’t think that provision [requiring a bond] is self-executing. It would take action by the City Commission.” In other words, if there is a part of the charter you don’t like, you simply say it’s “non-executing” and ignore it.

When the city attorney says a charter official does not comply with the charter, can you simply sit quietly, in spite of having taken an oath to “support, protect and defend” the city’s charter? I was there, I heard them swear. And this week, I watched them hold their tongues.

Sarasota is about to select a new city manager, another charter official. And the city – not in a University of Florida sense – is a swamp. The city attorney argues the clerk and auditor is fine; the bond issue, all taken care of with an insurance policy. Our prospective city mangers are watching carefully: Just how loose are the rules in this city?

City commissioners think everything is fine because they don’t have any questions about their charter official’s legitimacy, when even their oath of office might be illegitimate, because the person who swore them in was not qualified to do so.

Make no mistake: The charter is the constitution of this city. This is not about personalities. This is about the citizens’ mutual compact with their government. Those citizens must comply with city laws and regulations or face the consequences. When you take a job with the city that says you must have a bond, are the rules different for you? For the past two years, they have been for Nadalini, and especially for those who have sought to cover up that fact.

2 thoughts on “The charter crisis

  1. Isn’t it fair to ask, “Why can’t Nadalini get a bond?”
    Why can’t Nadalini get a bond?

  2. The charter is the charter. They are rules, not suggestions. Therefore, a violation of the rules is a violation of the charter. To suggest that it is ok to violate the charter because of some future event where the rules may or may not change is not a valid argument as to why it is ok now to violate the rules. “Yes Officer, I was speeding today, but they have a ballot item in a few months to change the speed limit and it might pass, at which time my speed will be legal. Therefore, you can’t hold me liable for speeding today”. You can argue it in court, but if the CAC doesn’t have a bond, she is violating the charter.
    Bonding is not insurance. The issue isn’t if insurance is better than bonding. The requirement is bonding, not insurance. Again: “Officer, I don’t have auto insurance, but I have a bond. It’s practically the same, so you can’t write me a ticket for not having insurance”.
    That said, both a bond and insurance are designed to protect the City from fraudulent or illegal theft by the person (being bonded or insured). The difference is, under a bond, in the event of a theft by the CAC, she would be liable for the financial loss. Under insurance, the City’s insurance pays the loss (and any possible premium increases as a result). The risk is shifted from the CAC to the City. The charter objective is to ensure the charter officials are held personally liable for their actions. That doesn’t happen with insurance.
    The question is, if a bond can be considered a measure of someone trustworthiness, i.e. their credibility, and they can’t get a bond, does that bring their credibility into question? Isn’t that the same “reason” given as to why the last City Manager was let go … a loss of credibility? What the City Commission decides to do about the credibility issue will go far as to their credibility, too.

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