Concern arises that an elected mayor could dismiss all director-level positions, leaving city without staff members who have institutional knowledge
It took close to two hours of discussion, but the members of the City of Sarasota’s Charter Review Committee this week voted 7-2 to recommend to the City Commission that the mayor of Sarasota be elected for four years, just as the commissioners are.
The committee members did vote unanimously, however, to recommend that the City Commission continue to appoint the city manager, to eliminate the potential of constant turnover in that position.
Additionally, they voted unanimously to recommend that the elected mayor should not have the power to make appointments. Committee member Philip DiMaria made that motion, and Vice Chair Eileen Normile seconded it.
“We need to provide the Charter officials the autonomy to run the city [and] allow commissioners to continue dictating legislative policy,” DiMaria told his colleagues. Appointments “certainly fall within those roles, in my opinion,” he added.
“Yes to all of the above,” Normile said.
The three city Charter officials are the city manager, the city auditor and clerk, and the city attorney.
During the discussion about who should be responsible for appointing the city manager, the current manager, Marlon Brown, pointed out to the committee members, “My biggest fear about working with one person,” whether the mayor is serving a two-year or a four-year term, is that “I could be gone at [the next] election.”
Brown added, “The entire director-level positions could be gone in one election. You lose all of that institutional knowledge in one election on one day.”
“It’s up to this Charter Review Committee,” Brown continued, “as to what they would like to recommend to the commission, which eventually would put this on the ballot. But Marlon Brown would not work for one person.”
Committee member Cathy Antunes ended up making the motion calling for the city manager to continue to serve at the pleasure of all five commissioners, and Normile seconded it.
“As a professional,” Antunes said, “I would want to report to a board of directors of five and not one, and I don’t think that we’ll ever attract or keep the talent that we need if we have a city manager that reports to one person and serves at the pleasure of one person.”
Normile reminded her colleagues that City Attorney Robert Fournier had advised the committee members that state law prevents the City Commission from imposing more stringent qualifications for persons seeking the position of mayor. Therefore, she continued, an elected mayor “could be — who knows — someone who hasn’t been able to hold a job for years. … And in that case, that person could actually, as Marlon said, sweep the entire management staff out the door, and then you have the blind leading the blind.”
The length of term decision
Committee member Dan Clermont made the motion regarding the length of term, with several of his colleagues having agreed about the difficulty of an elected mayor almost constantly having to campaign for office.
“I really dislike the idea of a two-year term,” Clermont said. “That’s just too frenetic and chaotic.”
However, Clermont did acknowledge the need for future committee discussions on “guardrails” that could be included in the City Charter, to prevent situations in which that mayor takes actions that residents would find offensive, given the fact, as committee members also have discussed, that it is nearly impossible to recall an elected official in a community with its own Charter, such as the City of Sarasota.
“I really appreciate hearing about guardrails,” Antunes said, “because it’s a tough discussion.”
Only Chair Carolyn Mason and Vice Chair Normile voted against the motion. Committee member Peter Fanning was absent.
Committee member Jeff Jackson initially had broached the idea of a two-year term. That would “alleviate some of these fears that keep getting passed on about some kind of strong boss mayor,” he added.
Committee member Wayne Reuben agreed with that proposal.
However, committee member Kim Githler was the one who first pointed out, “Two years is tough, because they are constantly politicking to get elected.”
Nonetheless, she continued, if two years was what it took to “get this initiative moving,” she was willing to go along with that proposal.
Clermont concurred with Githler’s concerns about the constant campaigning. “You’re elected, and about two weeks later, you start running again. It’s not a really great way to run the city.”
Although Normile continued to voice support for the current commission-manager form of government that was voted down on Nov. 9, she said she would prefer a two-year term for an elected mayor.
Normile added that a mayor with a four-year term would have time to advance his or her vision for the city. “But if it’s not your vision,” Normile said, “you’re getting nothing.”
In response to a question from Normile, City Manager Brown explained that the City Commission adopts a strategic plan every two or three years. Because of the pandemic, he noted, staff is continuing work on the newest one; he hopes to present it to the commissioners in January 2022.
“That is a vision that comes from not just five different members who represent democratically different areas in the city, am I correct?” Normile asked Brown.
“Correct,” he replied.
The plan on which staff is working will incorporate suggestions from the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations of Sarasota (CCNA), Brown pointed out.
Additionally, Normile told her colleagues, she preferred a two-year term because that would serve as a “hammer that says if you’re not going to be doing what we want, you’re gone.”
Clermont noted that the idea of a mayor with a vision — which he discussed before the Nov. 9 vote — “keeps getting shot down.”
However, he continued, “I think it is germane, because the people would be voting on the person based upon the vision that they project,” instead of a strategic plan that the city manger and staff create. “And this person is then responsible to the voters to deliver on [that vision].”
“I actually agree with Dan,” Antunes said, “although I appreciate the two-year hammer.”
Clermont also reminded his colleagues that they serve only in an advisory capacity, as appointees of the City Commission. “We have to put something out that is politically palatable to the commission and that is politically palatable to the voter … We made a decision to have an elected mayor.”
However, referencing negative comments in the community about the potential of a “boss mayor,” he continued, “I don’t think any of us are very interested in that. I think that won’t fly anyway.”
After further discussion, Clermont pointed out that the committee members previously had agreed not to allow the elected mayor to have a vote or veto power over commission votes. Perhaps the answer, he said, was to focus on a mayor who works on policies, with the ability to discuss issues and strategy with individual commissioners.
(City Attorney Robert Fournier had explained that, based on his research, such a mayor could discuss city business with the other commissioners in private, without records having to be kept to comply with the state’s Sunshine Laws.)
Normile voiced her objection to Clermont’s suggestion that “we have to come up with something politically palatable to the commission. That is not my goal. My goal,” she added, “is to come up with the best possible form of government.”
She also expressed her concern that the type of mayor Clermont was describing would create another layer of government, with the city manager on the leadership rung below the mayor. Yet, she continued, the city manager is the person, “basically, who knows how the city runs because the commissioners are all new and have diverse business experience, if any … [The manager is] the rudder on the ship, and [the commissioners] are the ones who bring in the thoughts from the constituents.”
Githler disagreed. Her company has had a president “for many, many years” who collaborates with her, she added. “We divide and conquer, and we work together …” That could be the process for the mayor and the city manager, Githler said. The city manager would be akin to a CEO, she pointed out, while the mayor would have a role comparable to that of a president of a company.
DiMaria circled back to Clermont’s comments regarding politically feasible recommendations. Noting the group’s March 2022 deadline for presenting its report to the City Commission, he continued, the committee could keep putting off decisions.
“In my mind,” DiMaria continued, “maybe where we are and where we should go is just maintaining more of the status quo … But the mayor perhaps becomes a four-year point person that folks can go to, that’s not constantly rotating …”
As Clermont summed that up: “a person who is elected by the people of the city to drive the agenda that they chose, the vision that they chose and can work with the commissioners …”
He added, “Everybody sees what’s happening. It’s nothing going on in the dark, but there are conversations so that they can try to attempt to get people working together.”