A host of heavy issues faces city on Monday

A note in chalk on a sidewalk in Five Points Park invites the public to a Flag Day event sponsored by the Sarasota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. A new trespass ordinance is on the City Commission agenda for July 16 — a result of past incidents in the park. Photo by Norman Schimmel

Call it ‘the leadership soap opera’

Several significant issues face the Sarasota City Commission on Monday, July 16. The top item is the selection (maybe) of a new city manager, but that is not the only thorny problem on the agenda. At least three long-boiling issues may be resolved, but at least two new problems are rising to replace them. As they are listed on the agenda, here’s a précis of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Police panels

The afternoon session will begin with the annual reports of the Police Advisory Panel (which meets quarterly) and the Police Complaint Committee (which meets monthly). The advisory panel under Chairman Elmer Berkel has taken a relaxed approach to its mission, undergoing training for months on police activities and procedures. One sub-panel looked at the role of mediation in disputes; another looked at law enforcement in North Sarasota.

The complaint committee went boldly where no civilian group had gone before – reviewing how the Sarasota Police Department polices itself. “How does the department handle complaints?” proved to be a tumultuous question. Two members resigned in the first year, and two others (including the chairman) resigned last month.

The two panels will present their annual reports July 16. Berkel’s report concludes, “[W]e remain conscious of the duty upon us to foster public trust in the police and to assist in the Chief’s community policing policy which we wholeheartedly support.”

The complaint committee’s report has a markedly different tone. Written by Police Complaint Committee Chairman Ronald Riffel (before his resignation), it concludes: “Without strong support and/or enforcement power the PCC offers little prospect of impact on the SPD and value to the community which the Commissioners believed to be necessary at the time of its formation.”

The five-member PCC has three vacancies.

Consent agenda items

The city commissioners can approve consent agenda items without discussion, or they can pick and chose among the items, pulling some from the consent agenda for discussion. Citizen comment is generally not allowed on consent items.

First on the July 16 consent agenda is a $96,738 project with the Florida Department of Transportation called “Safe Routes to Schools.” The school in this case is Alta Vista Elementary, just east of Sarasota High School.

The money would pay for sidewalk and crosswalk improvements, signage and traffic calming. The affected streets would be Euclid Avenue and Hatton Street, which are near the school. The project would begin after the 2012-2013 school year.

Further down on the consent agenda is a request from the Sarasota Sailing Squadron to improve its leasehold at Ken Thompson Park with the addition of solar cells worth $123,130. The squadron leases the land from the city for its storage and club facilities.

The project includes rebate money from Florida Power & Light Co. for 40% of the entire cost. The club estimates solar power can cuts its electricity bill in half. While the club has the money to complete the project, it will use creative financing with a third party to lease the equipment and gain a substantial federal tax break. Mote Marine Laboratory recently completed a similar program.

The final item of general interest on the consent agenda is a rewrite of the city’s rules on waterways and boating. The old rules were in conflict with new legislation and with the city’s plans for a bayfront mooring field. The new ordinance authorizes a harbor master to manage the mooring field.

The new ordinance is a stem-to-stern rewrite of the city’s old regulations, including definitions. It contains an entirely new section for rules to govern the bayfront mooring field.

And ‘da winnah’ is ….

The top item of the “Unfinished Business” part of the meeting will be the selection of a new city manager from among the four finalists identified two weeks ago. Yes, this was also on the agenda last week, but the commissioners at that time decided “none of the above” was the proper response.

For reasons best known to themselves, the commissioners reversed course. After The Sarasota News Leader broke the story on Friday, July 6, that Interim City Manager Terry Lewis would not stick around for the next round of headhunting, the commissioners changed their tune on July 10 and decided to return to the job of selecting a new city manager. Lewis said he would bow out on Aug. 3. Bob Bartolotta – the previous city manager – resigned Jan. 17.

“That we didn’t pick one of [the finalists] says more about us than it does about them,” said City Commissioner Terry Turner on July 10. “If we don’t change our approach, we’re unlikely to find a candidate that we can agree on. The turmoil it’s causing and the impact on morale is unacceptable.”

Still in the race are the current city managers of Daytona Beach (James Chisholm) and West Palm Beach (Ed Mitchell) and the prior city manager of Oak Park, Ill. (Tom Barwin). While Rick Chaffin of McKinney, Texas, pulled out after the interview process the last weekend in June, he now says he’s back in for consideration.

If the City Commission sticks with its “none of the above” decision, the headhunter consultant — Colin Baenziger of Wellington, Fla. — appears ready to provide a new timeline for search, interview and recruitment. It calls for selection of a new manager on Oct. 1, almost 10 months after Bartolotta resigned. Additionally, the commissioners will have to find a new interim city manager after Lewis leaves in early August.

In the meantime, there is a budget to be developed and a new police chief to hire because of the upcoming retirement of SPD Chief Mikel Hollaway.

Trespass rewrite ready

Next up under “Unfinished Business” will be a revision of the city’s trespass law. A federal appeals court ruled recently that verbal trespass warnings are unconstitutional because there is no formal way to challenge them. It ruled ordinances similar to Sarasota’s violated constitutional “due process.”

The proposed new ordinance allows a person to contest the warning, if he believes he did not violate the law. Now the warning must be given in writing, with sufficient information about the procedure to be used in contesting the ruling.

Once “warned,” an individual must stay away from the area for one year or face imprisonment. Thus, a simple but uncontestable verbal warning could keep someone from entering a public library or a park.

A special magistrate “shall hold the hearing as soon as possible,” the ordinance says. “In no event shall the hearing be held later than 40 days from the filing of the appeal.” Within five days, the magistrate will issue a written decision, which then can be appealed to a higher court.

Wrapping up the afternoon

The final item under “Unfinished Business” is the second reading of the controversial plan to amend pensions for the city police. On the agenda is “adoption” after “second reading,” indicating the issue is over.

Mediation and lawsuits are over; this is the final action. It marks the culmination of more than two years of difficult and complicated negotiations. It includes a host of refinements and changes, which city commissioners hope will save $1 million per year without impacting existing retirees. The action will conclude the afternoon session of the city commission meeting.

Procurement code rewrite

Another stem-too-stern ordinance change is up for adoption in the evening session. City staffers have crafted a comprehensive overhaul of the procurement code, which governs the purchase of goods and services.

Proponents say city staffers and vendors will have better access to the rules, because they will all be in the city’s code. Right now, the rules are scattered – some in the code, some in administrative regulations.

Proponents also say the rewrite cuts the risk of “meritless bid protests,” because it clarifies who has standing and limits the timeframe for filing a protest. The 25-page rewrite includes rules for “local preference” as well as “bid and proposal protest procedures.”