Call to Artists for State Street garage cancelled in wake of conflict-of-interest situation

City Commission immediately votes to issue a new advertisement for proposals for the garage

The State Street garage opened in downtown Sarasota in the latter part of 2015. File photo

On the recommendation of City Attorney Robert Fournier, the Sarasota City Commission this week voted unanimously to cancel the Call to Artists it issued almost exactly a year ago in an effort to feature public art that also would serve a wayfinding purpose in the State Street garage.

“There is still no absolute guarantee that the city will not get sued,” Fournier explained, but by taking the vote, “the prospects for successfully defending a challenge are much better.”

Additionally, the board was unanimous in a follow-up vote to advertise a new Call for Artists for the garage, which was completed in the fall of 2015.

Prior to the commissioners’ regular meeting on June 5, Fournier provided them with an in-depth assessment of the background: The Public Art Committee (PAC) had a tie-breaking vote on April 12 that resulted in a recommendation that the State Street garage commission go to the son-in-law of city Parking Manager Mark Lyons.

Mark Lyons. File photo

Senior city staff subsequently learned that a PAC member switched his support from a second artist to Mark Krucke, Lyons’ son-in-law, after listening to Lyons talk about logistical problems posed by the other artist’s proposal. A city investigation found that neither Lyons nor two other city staff members at the PAC meeting disclosed Krucke’s connection to Lyons prior to the vote.

Following the city investigation, Lyons and the other two employees — Clifford Smith and David Smith in the Neighborhood and Development Services Department — were demoted, and their salaries were reduced.

Krucke and his wife, Kati, were among five people who pleaded with the City Commission on June 5 to abide by the PAC’s vote. Krucke even offered to provide his art for free, instead of accepting the $100,000 commission, if the board continued to have concerns about a conflict of interest.

“Although I’d like to, I’m not going to speak about how this has affected my family,” Kati Krucke told the board members. Instead, she urged them to consider the message they would be sending artists in the community: “After an arduous application process, being selected and doing everything according to protocol, they still may not have the chance to succeed here.”

“As far as I know,” Krucke said, “there’s no public complaints” about his proceeding with the work.

Only one speaker — downtown resident Kristina Skepton — urged the board to cancel the Call to Artists.

Commissioner Hagen Brody. Image from his campaign website

“This is a very heartbreaking and frustration situation that we are in,” Commissioner Hagen Brody said. “At best, it’s the appearance of an impropriety, which can give rise to a lawsuit.” Ultimately, Brody continued, “my responsibility is to the taxpayers and to be stewards of those tax dollars.”
Looking at City Manager Tom Barwin, Brody added, “This is infuriating. This is something that I think affects the confidence of the public in this institution, and it affects, obviously, the time and energy that has been put into these [art] projects.”

Brody made the motion to cancel the Call to Artists.
“This is a horrible position for you and your family to be in, along with the other four finalists,” Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie told Krucke. The PAC members were victims of the conflict-of-interest situation, she added. “That taints the process. … Unfortunately, for lack of an analogy, you can’t pull the dirt out of the water; it’s in there.”

The only way to rid the process of the taint, she continued, “is to start [it] over.”

“I just don’t think we have a choice,” Vice Mayor Liz Alpert concurred, “as painful as it is.”

Commissioner Willie Shaw made the motion to cancel the Call to Artists for the project.

No ‘realistic alternative’

At the outset of his presentation, City Attorney Fournier explained that because the City Commission voted on June 20 2016 to issue the Call to Artists for the State Street garage project, it was the body that needed to act on cancelling it — if that was the action the board wanted to take.

His recommendation was to terminate the initiative, though he did not offer that lightly, he said; rather, “I really don’t see that the city has a realistic alternative.”

Knowing Lyons, Fournier added, “I personally don’t believe that there was any intent to deceive anyone. However, that’s really beside the point, because the real point here is that it does create the appearance of an impropriety.”

Fournier pointed out that the Call to Artists did include language saying the city reserved the right to reject all applications and re-advertise for artists’ proposals.

Mark Krucke presented this design for the third level of the State Street garage. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

When Freeland Eddie asked whether cancelling the call would make the city “immune from liability,” Fournier replied that that was not what he had said. “A suit could still be filed,” he told her. Nonetheless, “you’re in much better legal position this way,” he added.

Brody also made the motion for the new Call to Artists for the State Street garage project.

Commissioner Alpert voiced doubts about taking that action, saying, “I certainly want to see art in the garage, but I’m not sure [about re-advertising for it]. We’d basically have all the same artists coming in.” Then she added, “I guess that’s OK.”

At that point, City Manager Barwin suggested the board could delay action on that step. If the board would grant staff members the opportunity, Barwin said, they could talk with the Public Art Committee about one option Fournier had proposed as an alternative to another Call to Artists: soliciting proposals from local art students instead of professional artists.

Moreover, Barwin continued, staff could provide a report on the amount of money in the city’s public art fund and an overview of other demands on that money — including future roundabout sculptures and public suggestions about murals in the city.

He probably would be able to return with that report in 30 days, he told the commissioners. Because the city had met its obligation by putting money into the fund for the State Street garage, Barwin pointed out, no pressure exists “to hurry up.”

Mark Krucke. News Leader photo

If the board chose to re-advertise the Call to Artists, Freeland Eddie responded, and the same applicants ended up applying, “at least we [would be doing] it with a clean, fair process, and I am not unhappy about that.”

“I want to see the applications submitted again,” Brody said. Looking at Krucke, he added, “I hope you apply.”

If Lyons had disclosed his relationship with Krucke to the Public Art Committee, Brody added, “I don’t think anybody would have had a problem with that, because everybody [would have been] fully informed.”

The full disclosure of any personal conflicts “should be the standard,” Brody pointed out.

Freeland Eddie concurred. Language should be added to the public art project applications to ensure that, she said.