Commissioners offer much praise and raises to their county administrator and county attorney

However, board members tell the county administrator he needs to make sure his upper-level managers handle more problems instead of his having to intervene

County Administrator Tom Harmer. Rachel Hackney photo
County Administrator Tom Harmer. Rachel Hackney photo

The Sarasota County Commission moved quickly this week to award a 3-percent raise to County Administrator Tom Harmer, whose current salary is $195,707.20, after praising his work as part of his annual evaluation.

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh also will receive a 3-percent raise, an automatic process built into his contract, Chair Carolyn Mason indicated during the board’s regular meeting on Oct. 28 in Sarasota. Nonetheless, the commissioners lauded DeMarsh for his work as well.

DeMarsh is making $218,524.80, Drew Winchester, a county spokesman, told The Sarasota News Leader.

The only caution commissioners offered Harmer during their almost 20 minutes of discussion was for him to make certain his upper-level staff members — managers, directors and assistant county administrators — handle more problems themselves instead of involving Harmer so often.

“I find that you are still immersed in many of the individual projects that these folks have,” Commissioner Christine Robinson said, “and they should be managing on their own.”

When problems arise that a manager cannot handle, she continued, the appropriate director should intervene. If that proves insufficient, she added, the assistant county administrator overseeing that area of work needs to act.

“It shouldn’t get to your level,” Robinson said. “You do a good job once it gets to your level … but it’s really not how it should be,” she continued, noting that his focus should be on “the big picture.”

Robinson added, “My expectation for you is that you will raise your expectations for them.”

Vice Chair Al Maio and Commissioner Charles Hines concurred. “The folks that you’ve picked to lead need to lead a little bit more versus everything coming to you,” Hines said. “Your managers need to manage so that projects move forward on a quicker basis.”

He continued, “You’ve straightened out all the big-picture issues. Now you need to motivate staff … It’s time for those folks to step up and work as hard as you do.”

Harmer reacts after the board offers him the position of county administrator on a full-time basis. News Leader archive
Harmer reacts in January 2014 after the board offers him the position of county administrator on a full-time basis. News Leader archive

Chair Carolyn Mason told Harmer, “I want to just comment that the transition from the previous administration has been and continues to be very smooth under your leadership. There are a few ripples still remaining, in my view, from that administration,” she added, referring to former County Administrator Randall Reid’s tenure of less than two years. “I just want to make sure those few ripples don’t turn into tidal waves and ruin what you’ve worked so hard to accomplish over this short period of time.”

The board fired Reid on Oct. 23, 2013; he began working as administrator in January 2012.

After their termination vote, the commissioners asked Harmer, who was deputy administrator, to take Reid’s position on an interim basis. The board voted unanimously on Jan. 28, 2014, to remove the “interim” from his title.

In other comments this week, Robinson and Commissioner Al Maio praised Harmer for the manner in which he handles the preparation of the county budget.

“You have done an excellent job of keeping us on a good budget track — this coming from the self-professed budget wonk,” Robinson said. “We came from a disaster in our budget transparency,” she added, referring to Reid. “That situation has turned around dramatically.”

Maio noted that in his professional capacity as an accountant prior to his 2014 election to the board, he “sat in that audience during the budget workshops. I lost confidence in the county as I watched that unfolding.”

Further, Maio said, “I don’t know how you get it all done.”

“The attitude or the atmosphere in this building is very positive,” Commissioner Paul Caragiulo told Harmer. “It’s quite different from what I was used to prior. That’s all I’ll say.”
Caragiulo served as a city commissioner before his 2014 election to the county board.

Robinson agreed about the high level of morale among county employees.

The Sarasota County Commission in January 2014 discussed the full-time hiring of Tom Harmer as administrator. News Leader archive
The Sarasota County Commission in January 2014 discussed the full-time hiring of Tom Harmer as administrator. News Leader archive

Hines added that whenever he is out in the community, the comments he hears from the public about Harmer are “always positive.”

“I think public evaluations can always be a little awkward,” Harmer said after the commissioners concluded their remarks, adding that he appreciates the board’s support. He acknowledged, “I take an extra effort to put out fires before they are fires.” However, he added, “I need to free up some of my time.”

During recent discussions among top-level staff, he continued, he had talked about some of the same management issues the commissioners had raised.

Still, he told the board, “I will have a tendency to jump in sometimes. I’m hesitant to let us fail.”

With 2,200 county employees in 17 departments, he added, “Things are going to happen every single day.” Some, he continued, will make him proud, and some, “I’ll scratch my head over.” Harmer continued, “How [county employees] respond [to situations] is how we should be measured.”

County attorney’s evaluation

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. News Leader archive
County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. News Leader archive

The only concern commissioners voiced during DeMarsh’s evaluation was that, as Hines first mentioned, county projects could benefit from having the expertise of the Office of the County Attorney at earlier points in some contract negotiations. “If your staff was brought in earlier,” Hines said, “[the contract work] might go smoother.”

Maio concurred, noting that other staff members “can learn a lot from how you and your staff handle these kinds of intense negotiations. … Your staff and you just take these issues and do not make them fistfights.”

“I think you’ve got a great crew, and you guys do a great job,” Caragiulo said.

“Your level of professionalism is consistent,” Robinson added. She has seen other local government attorneys try to insert themselves in matters inappropriately, she said. “You’re very careful to leave the policymaking to the policymakers.”

“It’s an absolute pleasure to work with you and your team,” Mason told DeMarsh. “If you can call it improvement, keep up your level of professionalism and high performance.”

DeMarsh thanked the board members for their comments. He credited his staff for the “good results” his office produces.

DeMarsh added that, occasionally, when he is traveling for business, he takes a few minutes to watch other government board meetings on local access TV channels. “What I take away from [that] is how professional Sarasota County government is,” he said.