Mayor Alpert raises the issue as show of commitment to the Orchestra
It took about 14 minutes of debate, but finally — by consensus — the Sarasota city commissioners agreed to allow staff to draft a resolution indicating the board’s desire to see the Sarasota Orchestra find a new home within the city limits.
Nonetheless, three of the board members — Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and Commissioners Shelli Freeland Eddie and Willie Shaw — made it clear that their approval of the resolution would be contingent upon its wording.
“What I’m trying to avoid is for us to get into any kind of a position where we feel obligated” to take specific action in regard to the Orchestra’s efforts to relocate from the bayfront into a new performing arts hall, Ahearn-Koch pointed out.
She was responding to Mayor Liz Alpert’s suggestion for the resolution.
Alpert raised the issue as part of her comments at the end of the commission’s afternoon session on Oct. 21.
“I don’t want to open a door that we have already closed,” Shaw said, referring to the May 20 vote denying the Orchestra’s request to relocate to a portion of Payne Park in downtown Sarasota.
Agreeing to the drafting of the resolution would not mean that any of the commissioners had to vote for it, City Attorney Robert Fournier responded. “You’ll be able to evaluate that when you see it. … You’re not committing to vote for anything that you have not seen.”
Alpert was the only board member who voted against Shaw’s May 20 motion to turn down the Orchestra’s plans for a new performing arts venue and office space in Payne Park, partly in the area where the tennis courts are located.
The decision followed comments from more than 70 speakers, mostly in opposition to the Orchestra’s proposal.
In making his motion that night, Shaw referenced a number of issues, including the environmental concerns of paving over public greenspace.
However, Shaw’s motion did offer the option for the Orchestra to come back with alternatives for a new home in the city.
On Oct. 21, Alpert told her colleagues that she had met the previous week with Sarasota Orchestra President and CEO Joseph McKenna and some of the Orchestra’s board members, along with City Manager Tom Barwin and other senior city staff members, to talk about the status of the Orchestra’s search.
Her recommendation as a result of that discussion, she continued, was that the City Commission adopt a resolution “saying that we are committed to working with them to try to find another city location. … I think the Orchestra would like to see some kind of movement saying that this commission really wants them to stay in the city.” Alpert described the action as “a goodwill gesture.”
She then asked for board consensus in directing staff to draft the resolution.
“What would it say?” Freeland Eddie ended up asking twice after Alpert failed to answer the first time.
Commissioner Hagen Brody said the resolution could point to the Orchestra’s history in the city.
Why not send a letter instead of a resolution? Shaw asked.
A resolution, Alpert told him, “is just a little stronger than a letter.”
“The fact that you and city staff have met with [Orchestra leaders] repeatedly since [the May vote] should signal to them that we are interested in having another conversation,” Freeland Eddie stressed.
“Not necessarily,” Alpert responded. “I think that they would like to know that [all the commissioners are] on board.”
What would be the objection to a resolution? Alpert asked.
A resolution would signal that the public supports that commitment to keeping the Orchestra in the city, Freeland Eddie told her. “I just think that walks the line.”
Alpert replied that she was not asking that the resolution say that the public is in favor of anything, just that the City Commission is in favor of keeping the Orchestra within the city.
A past failed attempt at conciliation
Then Ahearn-Koch brought up the fact that, during the commission’s Aug. 19 meeting, she had pointed out that at least five constituents had asked her to propose that the commission talk with leaders of the Orchestra. The goal, she said at the time, would be an exchange during which the commission and Orchestra representatives could be “creative in coming up with options” for the Orchestra’s home to remain within the city limits.
Ahearn-Koch wanted her colleagues’ views on that proposal. “Communication is always a good thing in my mind,” she added in August.
“I certainly think it’s really, really important to do everything we can to keep them in the city,” Alpert told her then. “They’ve been here 70 years. … We bill ourselves as an arts community. … I think to lose the Orchestra … would be just a travesty.”
However, as the board members continued that August discussion, concern arose that if they directed staff to put such an item on an upcoming agenda, members of the public would fill the Commission Chambers, fearful that the commission would backtrack on the May vote on the Payne Park site.
“We’re going to have 150 people in here,” Commissioner Brody pointed out.
“Don’t even go there yet!” Commissioner Shaw responded.
However, the board members finally agreed to ask staff to talk with Orchestra representatives and then schedule a discussion on an upcoming agenda.
City Manager Barwin told them that he would work with the goal of putting that item on the board’s Sept. 3 agenda.
During the Oct. 21 discussion, Ahearn-Koch pointed out that, as she understood it, the Orchestra representatives’ response to that initiative was “‘We’re not ready to talk to you …’”
Constituents had told her, Ahearn-Koch added, that the Orchestra leaders’ “feelings [had] been hurt.”
Debating the proposed new initiative
“I extended a hand to the Orchestra,” Ahearn-Koch said of the August discussion, “and it was rejected. So I am a little confused about taking an even stronger step. … I would support a letter letting them know how important they are in our history,” she said on Oct. 21.
“I think by this very conversation you’re saying it’s not important,” Alpert responded, referring to the preference for a letter instead of a resolution.
“I think the suggestion by the mayor is really to confirm, I think, what’s already been communicated but was lost,” City Manager Barwin pointed out: the direction to staff to continue to work with the Orchestra to find another home in the city.
Barwin added that he felt one big facet of the Payne Park decision was that it “played out pretty heavy in the media,” leaving Orchestra leaders concerned about the effects on their employees and benefactors, for example. “I think the resolution is to try to make it crystal clearthat … they’ve been a big part of our cultural fabric here … and that the city is committed to continuing to work on this. … This has nothing to do with Payne Park.”
A resolution is important, Alpert concurred, “for everybody involved, for donors, for everybody who’s interested in this … I think just a strong statement and a resolution … would go a long way towards having them stay here …”
“A letter wouldn’t do the same thing?” Ahearn-Koch asked. “I guess I don’t understand the nuance …”
“Why do you care?” Brody asked her.
“I’m asking a question,” she replied.
“It’s the perception,” Barwin pointed out.
“I agree it is a stronger statement to say in a resolution,” Brody added. “It’s more of an official act, the difference between a letter and a resolution.”
“Just a letter would be a letter from me,” Alpert told Ahearn-Koch.
Yet, all the commissioners could sign it, Ahearn-Koch replied.
“I’m just asking that we allow staff to craft [a resolution] and bring it back [for review],” Alpert said.
“Thank you,” Barwin responded.
Then, when Acting City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs asked if there was consensus for staff to draft the resolution, Alpert told her, “Yes.”
More debate ensued.
After Griggs again asked her question, Alpert replied that three board members supported the idea of the draft.
It took a few more exchanges among them before Shaw finally said, “Bring it back [for review],” referring to the draft.
“Consensus,” Ahearn-Koch added.