An open letter to the City of Sarasota

Let’s give a warm and big welcome to Tom Barwin, our new city manager. He still has to negotiate a contact and get settled in. If we don’t scare him away, he may be exactly what we’re looking for.

To that end, he will need a honeymoon period, during which all the parties in this huge civic marriage can get comfortable with a new partner. He was offered other jobs, but he hung out for this one. It was a professional risk on his part; maybe we should take a risk or two now for him.

Despite all the doom-and-gloom merchants (and I can be one myself), Barwin starts in a good place. City Hall recently saw the completion of a multi-million-dollar rehab, and it is a very nice place to call your office.

Thanks to the hard work of senior staff, the city commissioners received and reviewed a full-up budget this week. Budgeting is critical in modern government, and Barwin gets a year’s reprieve.

Barwin may be entering office at the bottom of the property value collapse. Instead of managing with ever fewer resources, he may be looking at an uptick in collections of all kinds of taxes. Meanwhile, city staffing is at its lowest level in a decade. Efficiencies are in place to keep productivity high.

Barwin brings a fresh set of eyes to where, when and how to spend any increased revenues. Unlike his competitors and predecessors, Barwin has a success record in economic development matters. During the federal military base-closure mania, he managed the conversion of a $1 billion Air Force base and the creation of 400 new jobs in the process during the first year.

He later was a special projects manager in Troy, Mich., responsible for an economic revitalization strategy for an older area of town. He went from there to head the Community Development Department of St. Clair Shores, Mich., with 14 miles of waterfront.

His last job, as village manager of Oak Park, Ill., involved both the Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway tourist districts, as well as grappling with government in a plunging economy.

Tourism, waterfront issues, economic development, awards for energy efficiency and innovation, steady budgetary confidence: He’s shown what he can do.

What can we do?

Perhaps we can show him we are responsible adults, able to disagree and still reach comfortable compromise. That we can see the big picture and not get consumed by petty details. That we can give him a chance to learn our city, the nuances of its charter and the fine diversity of its cultures.

Barwin’s roots are in law enforcement, and it would be interesting to hear what he thinks of our spanking-new police headquarters — along with his thoughts on community policing. All of this will come with time, and he will need time to gnaw at, chew on, digest and understand the complicated heart that beats in this animal we call Sarasota.

So give ‘im a break, everybody. To the city bloggers repetitively drooling hateful thoughts to professional think-tank critics to NIMBY businessmen to ultra-progressive neighborhood folks, I say give your city-manager-as-prey a little time to get some flesh on his bones before you sink your pointy teeth into him. This is a chance to determine how well our government works. But if everybody wants to crowd in and nobody can breathe, it’s a recipe for cardiac arrest, municipal-style.

Make no mistake. The arrival of Tom Barwin is not the arrival of a savior to forgive our sins and heal our wounds. And over the past several weeks, those sins and wounds have been painfully evident.

Our civility code, as one example, is clearly an unenforceable joke. The mayor on Wednesday let a City Commission candidate make personal attacks on a sitting incumbent. Who’s next?

What about the cheering and clapping that just recently have been punctuating commission meetings, while the mayor pretends not to notice? What’s next? Booing and shoe-tossing?

The lack of decorum is especially galling. City commissioners don’t wait to be recognized anymore. They simply barge in, interrupting others with their self-importance. Maybe that’s what happens when you don’t take your oath of office seriously.

It appears the city, the commission and the mayor have lost respect for each other. And no city manager – unless he comes from a little town along the Galilee –  can fix that.

Children, stop bickering. We’ve got company coming.

1 thought on “An open letter to the City of Sarasota”

  1. I’m with you on the new city manager. He sure looks good and he also seems prepared for the realities of Sarasota.

    I also applaud your comments regarding the mayor. The loss of control, process, decorum, and civility at city meetings sits right in the lap of Atwell. She can’t run a meeting and has no leadership skills. Will we have to wait until March for relief? Thank you for speaking out about the deplorable state of the meetings and please, keep pointing out the breaches, or it will only get worse. Did you hear Ed James try to squelch another commissioner who attempted to rescue her bumbling? Even the public speakers are taking control of the meetings! Is she oblivious or is her complicity a deliberate tool for political objectives? She does seem to be voting along the lines of real schoolyard bullies.

    Your metaphor is quite apt.

    Her aspirations toward elected mayor now are well known, but how could anyone entertain that with such limitations?

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