Commissioner Susan Chapman argues that the city’s new assistant city manager — and former finance director — would be the more appropriate choice
It took one failed motion before four members of the Sarasota City Commission this week appointed City Manager Tom Barwin to be their representative among the nine members of a planning organization that proposes to develop a design and funding strategies for 42 city-owned acres on the bayfront.
Commissioner Susan Chapman proposed that John Lege, who served as the city’s finance director before being named assistant city manager last month, be the board’s appointee. Although Mayor Willie Shaw seconded her motion to that effect — for discussion purposes, he noted — Shaw joined the other three commissioners ultimately in opposing it. That led to Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie following up with a motion to make Barwin the city representative. It passed with only Chapman voting “No.”
During the July 18 City Commission meeting, two leaders of Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 — Michael Klauber, co-owner of Michael’s on East, and Jon Thaxton, senior vice president for community investment at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation — explained that the organization would seek about $2.5 million through private fundraising efforts to hire a professional manager who would oversee the work of the planning organization of up to nine members. They added that they expected it would take 18 to 24 months after the group began its work for it to craft a master plan and oversight structure for the city’s property.
Based on about two years of discussion with community leaders and residents, Bayfront 20:20 is proposing an integrated cultural, recreational and educational destination on the downtown acreage.
Thaxton told The Sarasota News Leader on Oct. 4 that Bayfront 20:20 leaders have a meeting scheduled for Oct. 7. Very soon afterward, he said, he expected he and Klauber would be seeking direction from Barwin about how best to provide an update to the commission.
Exchanging their views
When Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown raised the appointment during the City Commission’s regular meeting on Oct. 3, he referred to the July presentation by Klauber and Thaxton. Brown proposed Barwin as the city’s appointee, because Barwin “has the ability to access the full resources of our city organization” — including planning and financial expertise — “that that planning organization might need.”
Then Chapman pointed out that Bayfront 20:20 leaders had yet to answer “several pages of questions” she had given them.
During the Oct. 4 telephone interview with the News Leader, Thaxton said he believed Chapman was referring to questions she had given him and Klauber in July. “They were really good questions,” he pointed out, adding that they will be answered during the planning process.
Chapman also told her colleagues on Oct. 3, “There hasn’t been yet an adequate financial analysis” of the concept for the bayfront property. That was why she felt Lege would be a better representative, she said.
Commissioner Suzanne Atwell disagreed. “I would indeed like to have Tom Barwin [as the appointee]. … He is the city’s top manager,” Atwell added, calling him “an amazing cheerleader for this city,” who has traveled extensively to other cities and who has “a keen knowledge of the cities in this community and their cultural and arts alliance.”
She told Barwin, “You are a walking-around-town manager, and that is exactly what [the planning organization members] need to represent the city.”
Freeland Eddie concurred that Barwin would be the appropriate appointee. Nonetheless, she continued, at some point, the commission might need to hire a consultant to assist Barwin in his service with the organization. “[Barwin] may not be able to devote all the attention that is necessary.”
Would that consultant represent just the city’s interests, Atwell asked.
“Absolutely,” Freeland Eddie replied.
Commissioner Liz Alpert also agreed that Barwin would be the better choice. “He has the entire staff at his disposal,” and if financial issues arise, Alpert added, he can call on the appropriate city staff members to help him.
Then Brown explained that he had neglected to mention earlier that in recent discussions with leaders of Bayfront 20:20, he had learned that one or more individuals they plan to include as planning organization members have “strong financial expertise,” including experience with municipal bonding initiatives.
But those would not be city staff members, Chapman pointed out, questioning their understanding of the city and the public’s interests in the bayfront property.
Moreover, Chapman told her colleagues, it was her understanding that Bayfront 20:20 members “haven’t raised anywhere close to the $2.5 million” Klauber and Thaxton mentioned in July.
Thaxton told the News Leader on Oct. 4 that, along with the initial $100,000 grant from the Patterson Foundation in July, “there have been numerous other contributions.” However, he explained, “We’re not going to get close” to the $2.5-million mark until all the planning organization members have been named. “People are going to want to see who’s in charge, and I think people have a right to [that].”
Thaxton said he expected the announcement of the members could come as early as next week.
Back at the commission dais, Shaw said Barwin would be his top choice, but he wanted to make certain that the City Commission would make any decisions about city funding or bonding for the project.
“I assure you we will have every talent in the city engaged in our efforts to develop … a terrific project … that this community will want to see evolve,” Barwin told the commissioners. “This is one we have to get absolutely right.”
As she had earlier in the year, Freeland Eddie reprised her concern that the city might need more than one member among those on the planning organization because of the expectation that the city would have the “the largest financial burden for this project.”
“They are an advisory group,” Barwin said of the planning organization members. Any decision about the future of the bayfront “rests with the group of five individuals at this table,” he added.
Brown concurred, though he said he could understand the perception of the commissioners that they might feel pressured by a decision that the majority of the planning organization members made if Barwin was in opposition to it.
Shaw also voiced worry that decisions of the current commission might not be reflected in votes of commissioners “20 years later,” who had no understanding of the concerns of the community about the future of the bayfront during these discussions.
Shaw then called for the vote on Chapman’s motion. After it failed, Freeland Eddie immediately made the motion to appoint Barwin to serve as the city’s representative.