Analysis: City manager amendment hits snag on way to ballot

Susan Chapman speaks to the City Commission Aug. 1 on the strong manager charter amendment. Photo by Norman Schimmel

Can 3,300 registered city voters be wrong? Or is this race-baiting in the making?

In a replay of last month’s city-manager hiring question, the city commissioners concluded this latest debate in a decision-less silence.

An unlikely coalition trooped to City Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 1, to support a referendum that would dismember the city auditor and clerk’s historic position in Sarasota’s government. A change to the charter proposed by a successful petition drive earlier this summer would shift the bulk of the auditor and clerk’s duties to the city manager. One vestige of the old position – an independent auditor – would retain “charter official” status and report directly to the City Commission.

The unusual Wednesday and Thursday afternoon City Commission meetings were scheduled to meet the requirements of the city’s charter, which allows citizens to petition the city government for charter changes. The charter sets deadlines for acting on successful petition initiatives. To get the question on the Nov. 6 ballot, the City Commission had to act on the matter this week.

When presented with a successful petition drive (one in which all the signatories are confirmed as registered city voters by the county supervisor of elections), city commissioners have no option but to put the question on the ballot. That requires an ordinance, which demands two public readings. The first reading on Wednesday allowed public comment, and 23 people came in the afternoon to speak.

The silence

The proposal to dismember the City Auditor and Clerk’s Office came from City Commissioner Terry Turner. He helped fund the petition drive, during which some of the canvassers received $2 per valid signature. The local Argus Foundation and other individuals also put money behind the drive.

After public testimony ended Wednesday, Turner moved to approve the ordinance and put the measure on the ballot. He was met with silence. No other city commissioner rose to the occasion to second Turner’s motion.

“I remind my colleagues the petitions are valid, and under the terms of the charter which we have sworn to uphold, we have an obligation to put this on the ballot,” Turner said.

To Turner’s credit, he did not reference the 3,300 people who signed the petitions or ask why his four fellow commissioners were standing in their way. Additional silence ensured, broken eventually by City Attorney Bob Fournier.

“A vote for this ordinance is not necessarily a vote to support the amendment,” said Fournier. “It’s a vote to put it on the ballot because it has the requisite number of petition signatures.”

Mayor Suzanne Atwell then said she’d second the motion if Turner made it again. He did, but it was City Commissioner Paul Caragiulo who seconded it.

“We are going to take this to the voters,” said Atwell. “This is our obligation.”

The motion passed 4-1, with City Commissioner Willie Shaw in the minority.

The episode was reminiscent of the commission meeting on July 2, when the commissioners failed to decide on a new city manager, voting to reject the finalists from a nationwide search and start over. Like the case of Wednesday’s petition decision, there was virtually no discussion among the commissioners, just rejection, a sense of “if we ignore it, will it go away?”

The testimony

The City of Sarasota can be a very polarized place, but on Wednesday afternoon, several barriers collapsed as pro-business and pro-neighborhood people joined to support the proposed charter change. As speaker followed speaker, several mentioned their “strange bedfellows.”

Juanita Rawlinson, former chairwoman of the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations, said, “I’m tired of the meaningless conflict at City Hall between the city auditor and clerk and the city manager. It has nothing to do with serving the citizens.”

Del Bergsdorf, until a short while ago the No. 2 at the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, said, “Recently this city decided to move certain operations away from the city manager. This wounds the ability of the new city manager to perform his functions.”

Two members of the city’s Charter Review Committee stepped forward to support the proposed amendment. Jim Lample said, “It makes perfect sense, and I support the concept. I think it would be a great idea to put the question to the public.”

Charter Committee Chairwoman Gretchen Serrie was more somber. “I am so unhappy to be here. My support [for this amendment] is based solely on good governance issues, and not personalities,” she said. “I don’t believe this is a ‘strong city manager’ issue. It restores the traditional balance of power. It is unprecedented we strange bedfellows should appear here together in support of this amendment – development interests and the neighborhoods.”

The race and gender cards

Pam Nadalini  Photo by Norman Schimmel

Sarasota’s city auditor and clerk is Pamela Nadalini, a 1984 graduate of Riverview High School who earned a Bachelor of Arts from Eckerd College in 2004. She was hired by the City of Sarasota in 1985 to work in the Finance Department. In 1990, she transferred to the City Auditor and Clerk’s Office. In 2000, she became the assistant city auditor and clerk.

Upon the resignation of City Auditor and Clerk Billy Robinson in 2010, she became the acting and then the permanent CAC, the first African-American charter official in the city’s history. As 2012 winds to an end, she may be the city’s last auditor and clerk.

Throughout Wednesday’s public hearing, she remained silent. Several people stepped forward to speak in support of her. While the polarization between neighborhood and business interests had vanished, an even older polarization appeared.

“I feel like this is South Africa. Sarasota, South Africa, a city where things can’t operate,” said Jeff Murphy.

Harold Smith was the first to testify at the public hearing: “I want to give thanks to Mrs. Nadalini for doing a splendid job.”

Vernell Coleman said, “The city needs to consider what they are trying to do to her. We do have a lot of prejudice going on here. I think she needs to keep her job.”

“You’re trying to fix something that is not broken,” said the Rev. Wade Harvin. “Keep Pamela Nadalini.”

Only one Caucasian speaker came forward to oppose the charter amendment. “What we need is a change of attitude between elected officials and charter officials,” said Michael Barfield. “What we really need to focus on is what’s best for the city, and stop the personality conflicts.”

Pyrrhic victory

When Classical Rome moved east, Greece sent its best general, King Pyrrhus, to stop it. He won battle after battle, but at increasingly higher costs. “One more victory like this and I am undone,” he said. And he was. Victory itself led to utter defeat and Greece entered the Roman Empire.

Nadalini’s two-and-a-half-year tenure as a charter official has a taste of Pyrrhus. She fought successfully to retain the city’s Public Information Department. And after allegations of (unsubstantiated) email shenanigans by the city manager, Nadalini’s office assumed control of the city’s Information Technology Department. But the costs were high.

A $150,000 investigation into the email irregularities so far has turned up nothing irregular. State and federal authorities, alerted that something was amiss, circled but eventually faded away. In the meantime, rancor grew. Turner’s charter amendment is an effort to combat the problem with a structural change.

Nadalini is in the crosshairs. As The Sarasota News Leader previously reported, the city charter demands she have a surety bond. But since assuming the office, she has not been able to obtain one. Turner’s amendment reiterates the demand for a bond.

It will take a diligent city voter to get to the bottom of this issue because the question is going to be near the bottom of the ballot. Moreover, that Nov. 6 ballot is long, and this question may be the very last one.

Far below the issues of the White House and statehouse and courthouse, voters will find an item to determine not only the fate of Nadalini, but the powers, duties and responsibilities of the Sarasota city manager.

In the Biblical sense of those who are last will be first, and the first, last, your most important vote on Nov. 6 may be the final question on your ballot.