Chainsaw of logic rips apart strong-mayor zombie

The proposal that will not die is dead. Again. For a while. But probably it will be back sooner than anybody expects. As the clock approached midnight on Monday, Aug. 20, the proposal for a popularly elected mayor with administrative powers was cut down again.

It was the sixth time in 16 years this political zombie has risen up to threaten the city’s body politic. Only 18 months ago, the Sarasota City Charter Review Committee studied the monster, asked for public comment, held deliberations and put the idea down. Again.

Since 1996, city voters have three times put a stake in the heart of an elected managerial mayor (once by a 2-to-1 margin). Twice city charter review committees have examined the idea thoroughly before rejecting it. But City Commissioner Paul Caragiulo revived the body this summer, breathed new life into it by infusing it with even greater powers than ever before and turned it loose. His colleague, Commissioner Terry Turner, dubbed Caragiulo’s goal “the imperial mayor.”

And Monday night, the latest effort died 3-2, with Mayor Suzanne Atwell and Caragiulo in the minority.

What is happening here?

The backstory

In 1913, Sarasota was incorporated as a city with A.B. Edwards as its first mayor. In 1921, it was named the seat of the newly established Sarasota County. In 1945 – a mere 32 years after its establishment – the city adopted the commission-management form of government with a new city charter. Col. Ross E. Windom was appointed the first city manager.

After 41 years, in 1996, a petition drive proposed to change the city charter and return the municipality to the mayor-commission form of government with a mayor of limited power. It was defeated 53% to 47%.

Six years later, the idea came up again. This time the focus was on an “executive mayor.” Opponents called it a “boss mayor” plan. Voters smashed the idea with a 70% majority of the ballots cast.

In 2006, the city charter review committee was asked to look at the mayor-commission form of government, but it declined to put it on the ballot. Then in 2009, another petition drive put an elected mayor initiative back on the ballot. And again, voters rejected it, this time with 65% of the ballots cast.

Only 24 months later, in 2011, another set of charter review committee members was asked to look at the mayoral form of government, and after due assessment, again rejected it.

The context

The commission-manager form of government is the most common in America for cities under 100,000 population. America’s largest cities are run by popularly elected (e.g. “political”) mayors with broad executive powers, including patronage.

City managers, on the other hand, are not elected, and hence are non-political. That is their charm. Seldom has one put his brother-in-law on the payroll or accepted a cash donation for a re-election campaign. They are calm, professional managers.

The primary argument for a mayor with executive power is “leadership.” Proponents say voters should be able to choose between alternative “visions,” and the office-holder should have the power to achieve his or her goals. And sometimes it turns out that way. But more often it leads to an entrenched mayor who can accumulate sufficient favors and campaign contributions to stay in office indefinitely.

Bradenton provides a good case study. It’s next door and similar in size to Sarasota. It has kept the mayoral form of government to this day. The current mayor is Wayne Poston, the former top editor of the Bradenton Herald daily newspaper. You could argue his old job prepared him well to have a “vision” for Bradenton.

His first four-year term began in 1999. He’s still in office 13 years later and running for four more years. Two major projects are under way in Bradenton, and both are projects that have begged for fulfillment his entire tenure. By the end of summer, the “Riverwalk” project along the southern shore of the Manatee River should be finished. And the “pink palace” renovation of a 1920s-era hotel downtown is about to begin. Worthy projects, but three terms later?

Poston beat an incumbent to take the job. In 1999, he defeated Bill Evers, and four years later beat Evers again. Evers had the job for 20 years. So for the past 33 years, Bradenton has had two mayors. And Bradenton looks not a lot different, except for two new government buildings downtown – a city hall and a county administration complex.

Is there a pattern?

Sarasota holds a unique record in the city manager game. Ken Thompson was the city manager for 38 years, the longest tenure of any city manager in American history. His nickname was “the silver fox.” His bronze visage overlooks the still fountain in the center of City Hall.

When a City Commission fired him 1987, he wasn’t finished. He turned around and ran for a seat on the commission. And, tellingly, he lost. Politics wasn’t part of his skills set. He was a manager. During Thompson’s tenure, nobody brought up the idea of changing the form of government.

Thompson was followed by David Sollenberger, recruited from the city manager’s job in Minona, Minn. Eight years later, on Sept. 27, 1995, city commissioners held a special meeting to talk about firing Sollenberger. Meeting minutes show three commissioners were ready, but calmer heads prevailed and Sollenberger survived. Nonetheless, petitions soon began to circulate to change the form of government.

One year after the special meeting, voters were casting ballots on whether to get rid of the city manager form of government. As elections go, it wasn’t close, with the issue losing by 6%, 47% in favor to 53% opposed. But subsequent events would show this to be the closest the proposal would ever get to success.

Fast forward to 2001. Sollenberger was in hot water because of cost overruns during a renovation of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Simultaneously, a petition drive began, this time for a strong mayor form of government, a “boss mayor.”

By the time it came up for a vote, Sollenberger was gone, replaced by Mike McNees from Collier County. As he was trying to settle into the city manager’s office, McNees had to withstand the blow-back from the “boss mayor” petition drive on the March 12, 2002 ballot. Voters smashed the idea 30% to 70%, and McNees’ job was safe.

Sollenberger served 14 years, but McNees’ run would be less than half as long, a six-year tenure. As that time drew to a close, the city’s charter review committee was called into session, and one of the proposals it studied involved an elected mayor. Again, the measure was turned down, but a pattern started to emerge.

After McNees resigned in 2007, Bob Bartolotta was hired from Jupiter, Fla. And he, too, would face challenges from elected-mayor forces. Another petition drive went to the ballot in 2009, in the middle of his five-year run. (It failed 35% to 65%).

And in 2011, another set of charter review committee members was asked to consider the merits of a managerial mayor. They declined to send it to the ballot.

For both proponents and opponents of an elected mayor with managerial powers, the history is revealing. The petitions start to circulate when the citizens lose faith with a city manager. Sometimes the situation is related to City Commission displeasure, but sometimes it proves an independent show of no confidence.

Bartolotta’s five-year tenure faced measures twice. After his departure (and in the absence of any permanent city manager), Caragiulo’s proposal marks a third no-confidence move.

McNees started his tenure facing a referendum originating in the Sollenberger days, then had his own brush with the managerial mayor proposal via the charter review board.

Sollenberger escaped the 2002 referendum, but arguably precipitated it. And with Ken Thompson, nobody ever brought it up.

Conclusions, if any

Two completely separate factors appear to be working in concert. As city commissions begin to lose confidence in their appointed city managers, city voters begin to lose confidence in the system. Sollenberger’s case is illustrative. In 1995, he escaped the City Commission “bullet” that eventually propelled the 1996 referendum.

McNees survived the Sollenberger “blow-back” referendum in 2002, but he faced the same issue with a charter review committee in 2006. In 2007, McNees resigned in the face of an increasingly hostile City Commission.

The 2009 referendum seems like an anomaly. It occurred in the middle of Bartolotta’s tenure. He survived it with a vote of 35% to 65% and survived again when the charter review committee in 2011 looked at the elected managerial mayor idea and rejected it. But by January 2012, Bartolotta was gone.

Now history can repeat itself. A new city manager comes on stage, Tom Barwin, much as his predecessor Mike McNees did in 2001. Citizens rallied to preserve the commission-manager form of government in 2002, crushing the “boss mayor” plan. Barwin gets a bye, because by one vote, there will be no referendum hanging over his honeymoon in Sarasota.

PS: My thanks to the journalism of former Mayor Lou Ann Palmer for filling a big hole in this analysis, specifically regarding the 1995 special City Commission meeting.

The roster: Sarasota’s city managers

Col. Ross Windom, 1945

Carl Bischoff

Ken Thompson (38 years), 1949 to 1987

David Sollenburger (14 years), 1987 to 2001

Mike McNees (six years), 2001 to 2007

Robert Bartolotta (five years), 2007 to 2012

Tom Barwin, 2012 to ?