City Commission delays approval of conflict resolution process over final Downtown CRA payment

Board agrees to allow city manager and city attorney to try to schedule an informal discussion first with their county counterparts

City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo

Yes, they still want the money, and pursuing formal conflict resolution proceedings allowed by state law may be necessary.

However, the Sarasota City commissioners this week agreed to let City Manager Tom Barwin and City Attorney Robert Fournier first initiate informal discussions with their Sarasota County Government counterparts over a final payment the city says the county owes it for the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund.

To resolve the dispute over the CRA payment, Fournier had prepared a resolution for the City Commission to approve during its regular meeting on Jan. 17. That would be the first step in the process outlined under the Florida Governmental Conflict Resolution Act, he pointed out, reprising comments he made during commission meetings last fall.

During the board’s regular meeting on Sept. 6, 2016, Fournier said, that because the CRA was established in 1986, he felt the City Commission and staff “could make a credible case” that Sarasota County owes it one last payment.

The County Commission voted in September 2015 to end its involvement in the Downtown CRA, as of the end of that year. The CRA was established to remove blight from that area and encourage private development, Commissioner Paul Caragiulo — a city commissioner before his election to the county board in 2014 — pointed out before making the motion. The Downtown CRA had done that, he said, even though some parts of the city still needed improvements. Caragiulo indicated those issues could be addressed through the Newtown CRA, which would still be in effect.

Nonetheless, Assistant City Manager John Lege — when he still was serving as city finance director last year — provided documentation based on his research that, he and Barwin said, proved the original city/county agreement called for the final county payment to come in 2016. Therefore, the City Commission voted unanimously on Oct. 3, 2016, to send a bill to the county for about $4.5 million.

During the City Commission’s regular meeting this week, Fournier said, “When I was drafting … the resolution … I began to question the propriety of adopting it right now because it did occur to me that nobody has even met informally yet to discuss this, which I think would be productive, if we could do it.”

A graphic shows the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Barwin “has had one or two random conversations with the county administrator,” Fournier pointed out, “as I have with the county attorney.”

Fournier noted that he had discussed the conflict resolution process with Barwin just that morning. “I don’t want to be in the position of being perceived as ratcheting this up prematurely or unnecessarily,” he added.

Therefore, he recommended the City Commission take no action that day on starting the conflict resolution process. Instead, he suggested the board authorize Barwin to contact County Administrator Tom Harmer and representatives of the Office of the County Attorney to arrange an informal discussion prior to the next City Commission meeting.

If county staff is not willing to meet with city staff, Fournier noted, he could put the resolution on the City Commission’s next agenda.

“It would be the right thing to do and the reasonable thing to do,” he reiterated his proposal for an informal discussion first.

Commissioner Suzanne Atwell. File photo

When Mayor Willie Shaw asked for comments, Commissioner Suzanne Atwell sought clarification that Barwin and Fournier had not done more than mention the potential of the conflict resolution process to county staff.

Barwin replied that he had had “a couple of brief, superficial conversations [with Harmer], and I did give them a heads up” that the City Commission’s Jan. 17 agenda included the resolution Fournier had drafted, related to the state process.

Barwin concurred with Fournier’s recommendation to table the matter for the time being.

Fournier had a few legal questions he wanted to “toss out there,” he told the board, without having to discuss them in the open, as required by the state’s Sunshine laws.

He had explained earlier that, based on his reading of Florida State Statute 164, all the conflict resolution sessions would have to be conducted in a public forum, including potential mediation.

Atwell responded that, with the County Commission holding regular meetings next week, Harmer might want to seek his board’s approval to speak informally with Barwin and Fournier. “Hopefully, we can start that … first,” she added.

Commissioner Susan Chapman then made a motion to table consideration of the resolution until city staff has had an opportunity to talk informally with county staff.

Atwell seconded it.

“If we get a ‘No,’” Fournier told the commissioners, “we will come back.”

The board voted unanimously to approve the motion.