Two commissioners reproach county administrator during budget workshop

Comments by Carolyn Mason and Paul Caragiulo stand in stark contrast to all the praise accorded to Tom Harmer over the past two years

County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo
County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo

In the 25 months Tom Harmer has served officially as Sarasota County administrator — after an initial interim period — county commissioners have accorded him plenty of plaudits, especially for his handling of the budget.

It was understandable, then, if observers felt Harmer seemed a bit nonplussed this week as he heard sharp criticism first from Commissioner Carolyn Mason and then faced a milder rebuke from Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo as the board began its first budget workshop of the year.

As part of his introduction on Feb. 29, Harmer noted that each commissioner had received a copy of the county’s 2015 Annual Report. He had just completed his recitation of “Fast Facts” — a regular feature of budget workshops, during which he comments on county statistics — when Mason sought Chair Al Maio’s permission to speak.

“Mr. Harmer, I am disturbed by this cover,” she began, referring to the Annual Report. She added that it does not reflect the diversity of county staff.

“If we are ‘one team,’” she continued, “our team doesn’t look all like this.”
Furthermore, Mason told him, the photo appeared to have been taken at one of the new facilities at Siesta Public Beach Park. “It’s a glaring reminder for me that at one time … I couldn’t go to Siesta Key,” she said.

Mason was alluding to a community prohibition that was in effect decades ago: African Americans could not visit county beaches.

“I believe very firmly that everything we do, print-wise, has to show the diversity in our workforce, and this, to me, doesn’t do it,” she told Harmer.

The county's 2015 Annual Report features this cover. Image courtesy Sarasota County
The county’s 2015 Annual Report features this cover. Image courtesy Sarasota County
Commissioner Carolyn Mason. Rachel Hackney photo
Commissioner Carolyn Mason. Rachel Hackney photo

“We appreciate the feedback,” Harmer replied, adding quickly that if she looked inside the report, she would see the level of diversity of the county’s workforce illustrated by photos of various project managers.

Still, he said, “Understood the point.” He added that the county’s Human Resources Department had just completed a diversity action plan, which would be presented during the board’s March 30 budget workshop.

Then Caragiulo broached a different topic. Out of curiosity, he said, he wanted to know why copies of the presentations for the Feb. 29 workshop were not included on the county’s website with the agenda, as is the case for regular commission meetings. “Is that going to be the case now with workshops?” he asked.

Instead of being included in the backup agenda material, he pointed out, the Feb. 29 presentations were emailed to the commissioners.

Although he was not sure how the other board members felt, he continued, “I think it’s very important, because when I get anything — especially budget-related — I like to make people aware of material that’s in the packet, in case they have questions or concerns, they can voice them.”

County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo. File photo
County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo. File photo

As a matter of transparency for the public, Caragiulo continued, “I think it’s only fair ….”

Assistant County Administrator Steve Botelho replied that most of the budget workshop presentations are not ready to be linked to the agenda items at the time the agendas are released to comply with public notice regulations for the sessions. However, Botelho said, “We’ll shoot for that going forward with the future workshops.”

“Thank you,” Caragiulo told him.

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