City of Sarasota staff to research potential for consultant to assist with the next evaluation of charter officials

City manager, city auditor and clerk, and city attorney all get satisfactory reviews from commissioners, though Brody criticizes some of city manager’s actions

The City Commission sits in session on Oct. 2, 2017. File photo

The Sarasota city commissioners voted unanimously this week to accept the evaluations each had completed of the city’s three charter officials. However, they split 3-2 on directing staff to research the potential of hiring a consultant to assist them with the process in the future.

Commissioner Willie Shaw made the motion regarding the consultant, which Vice Mayor Liz Alpert seconded. Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Commissioner Hagen Brody opposed it, while Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch voted with Shaw and Alpert.

The mayor and Brody both voiced opposition to the potential expense. Nonetheless, Freeland Eddie concurred with Ahearn-Koch’s suggestion that the form the commissioners have been using for the evaluations should be revised.

They “could really be updated and made a lot more efficient,” Ahearn-Koch pointed out.

Because City Manager Tom Barwin and City Auditor and Clerk Pamela Nadalini received satisfactory evaluations, they qualify for 3% raises, Jan Thornburg, senior communications manager, wrote in a March 19 email in response to questions from The Sarasota News Leader.

Barwin’s salary is $208,023, Thornburg added, while Nadalini is paid $176,207 a year.

The raise, Thornburg noted, is similar to the one provided to other city employees who are not represented by collective bargaining organizations.

City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo

City Attorney Robert Fournier also received a satisfactory evaluation, but he is not a city employee, Thornburg explained.

The lowest mark any one of the three charter officials received was the “1” Brody gave City Manager Tom Barwin, whom Brody often has criticized for a variety of reasons since Brody won election to the board in May 2017. Most recently, Brody blamed Barwin for Mote Marine’s decision to work with Sarasota County staff on an effort to build a new aquarium on county land near Nathan Benderson Park. “I think that you need to be more focused on building and strengthening our relationships with community assets,” Brody told Barwin on March 19.

Brody conceded that his disagreements with Barwin are rooted partly in ideological differences. However, Brody added that he feels Barwin routinely provides information to the commissioners that plays up the view Barwin holds on the specific issue and downplays or omits material with a different stance.

Further, Brody told Barwin, “You have to be able to admit mistakes,” noting what he called Barwin’s inclination to “resort to emotional and political arguments.”

Nonetheless, Brody commended Barwin for making “good hires” and applauded his actions during the community response to Hurricane Irma last year.

Shaw gave the highest marks to the charter officials, awarding each a 3, while Ahearn-Koch gave the lowest marks across the board, awarding Barwin, Nadalini and Fournier all a 2.

One point meant “Below Expectations”; two points, “Meets Expectations”; and three points, “Exceeds Expectations.”

Pros and cons of hiring a consultant

At the outset of the March 19 discussion, during a regular City Commission meeting, Shaw addressed city Human Resources Department Director Stacie Mason. “I am thinking we’ve done this three times before,” he said, referring to the type of evaluation form the board members used. “Is that correct?”

City of Sarasota Human Resources Director Stacie Mason. File photo

“Yes,” Mason replied, indicating the time frame was at least three years.

A few years ago, Shaw continued, he remembered the commissioners talked about hiring a consultant to facilitate the process. When he asked on March 19 whether staff could revisit that, Mason told him, “I would say, ‘Yes’ to that.”

She arranged for a potential consultant to address the County Commission several years ago, she continued, but the board ultimately decided not to engage his services.

Shaw then said he would like to direct staff to look into the possibility of hiring a consultant for the next set of annual evaluations.

“What would a consultant do?” Freeland Eddie asked.

The person would “be a mediator” and also work one-on-one with each commissioner, Mason responded, to ascertain the goals the board members wanted to see each charter official achieve. The efforts to meet those goals, she indicated, would be used in the commissioners’ ratings of the performance of each charter official during the next round of evaluations.

When Freeland Eddie then noted that she felt the board’s strategic plan sets out the goals, Mason told her, “That’s part of it, definitely.”

When Vice Mayor Alpert asked about the potential cost of such a consultant, Mason replied that the expense three or four years ago was “under $4,000.”

“I don’t think it’s a necessary cost,” Brody said. “A lot of times, we can’t even get a phone call for that [amount].”

“I just don’t see how it’s any stronger than our strategic plan. That’s the document that we use” to grade the city manager, Freeland Eddie added. To hire a consultant “to essentially send messages between us and the city manager,” Freeland Eddie said, did not seem warranted, especially when each commissioner typically meets individually each week with City Manager Barwin.

Ahearn-Koch then asked whether the consultant would work with the commissioners in their evaluations of all three charter officials.

That would be up to the board, Mason indicated.

When Ahearn-Koch asked Shaw whether his motion included all the charter officials, he told her it did.

“People hate us spending money on these consultants that just really prevent us from addressing the issues and moving on,” Brody pointed out.

Then City Attorney Fournier noted that when the prospect of bringing in a consultant was discussed several years ago, some concerns arose about the potential for state Sunshine Law violations. He would like to research that issue again, he said, if the commissioners were interested in hiring a consultant.

After Shaw called for the vote, and the motion passed 3-2, Shaw asked that Fournier undertake the necessary research. That would guide the commissioners in how to proceed, Shaw said.

The evaluations

A chart shows the scores each commissioner gave the charter officials. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The evaluations were listed among routine business items on the board’s March 19 agenda, but Shaw had pulled the item to discuss the consultant, and Brody had pulled it, he said, because he felt the public deserved an in-depth public discussion of the performance of the charter officials.

Then Brody proceeded to discuss his ratings.

To Fournier, Brody said, “I think you do a very good job. I think that you’re extremely responsive to questions.”

Brody added that he would like to see “more formal utilization of legal memoranda on specific issues.”

Regarding City Auditor and Clerk Nadalini: Brody told her, “From my perspective, you do a very good job serving the commission. … You’re extremely responsive to requests for information,” and answers come in what Brody called an “unbiased manner.”

He did ask that Nadalini address means of sending out city notices in languages other than English, and he suggested she work harder to ensure announcements about advisory board vacancies are disseminated more widely.

Then he referenced “negative reviews” that Nadalini received through an anonymous process that Brody himself had proposed for inclusion in the evaluations this year. His goal, Brody explained on March 19, was to encourage employees who report to the specific charter officials to be able to comment on those officials’ conduct of city business.

One of those anonymous forms, for example, said, “Pamela is a cruel, self-serving individual. She manages by intimidation. I’ve seen her bring employees to tears over simple matters. She has no problem with yelling at someone or over them as they try to speak.”

City Auditor and Clerk Pam Nadalini. File photo

Another person wrote, “Nadalini’s administration style is to intimidate everyone that she works with and to put fear into those under her that if you do not do exactly as requested their lives at the City will become difficult.”

A third person wrote, “When aggravated or frustrated, the first response is anger, and she lashes out; by yelling, demanding or demeaning.”

“I want this to be a pleasant place for people to work,” Brody said on March 19. Referring to the “countless times” he has sat in her office, he added that he never had witnessed anything that supported the negative comments. Nonetheless, he said, “I do think that it has to be addressed.”

Vice Mayor Alpert noted that a total of 22 people — including one that day — had complained about Nadalini’s behavior. Those people, Alpert continued, “can’t be lying, so I think we really have to take a look at that.”

Perhaps, then, hiring a consultant to help with the evaluations “is a productive step in that direction,” Ahearn-Koch said.

“That’s what I think, too,” Alpert replied.

After Brody concluded his remarks about Barwin, Ahearn-Koch and Freeland-Eddie both talked of having provided their comments to the charter officials in their individual meetings.

“I believe that, actually, feedback to the charter officials should be done one-on-one with the charter officials,” Alpert added. “That’s what I did [but] I certainly think the form needs to be looked at.”