Debate over growth and city/county disputes among topics raised in city commissioners’ comments on May 27
It took two votes to arrive at a decision after three Sarasota city commissioners nominated themselves for mayor, but Willie Shaw will continue in the ceremonial post, the board decided on May 27.
Shelli Freeland Eddie — who marked her first year on the commission just two weeks ago — will serve as vice mayor, thanks to Shaw’s nomination of her and no other name being offered.
The votes came after first Shaw, then City Commissioner Susan Chapman and then Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell all put forth their own names for mayor during the required annual meeting to elect people to the top board posts.
After Shaw nominated himself, Chapman said, “Although I have great respect for you, Mayor — “Not a problem,” Shaw interjected — I would say that it’s time that we have a different mayor.” Chapman pointed out that while the position is ceremonial, under the city’s charter, “sometimes people think that when a person is mayor too long, … [that person is] more than the ceremonial mayor.”
“Not a problem,” Shaw reiterated his comment.
Then Chapman nominated herself.
“OK,” Atwell said. “If we’re going for it, I nominate myself, too.”
With Shaw having asked City Auditor and Clerk Pam Nadalini to conduct the voting, Shaw and Freeland Eddie voted for him on the first round, Chapman voted for herself and Commissioner Liz Alpert joined Atwell in supporting Atwell.
On the next round, Chapman cast her vote for Shaw.
“I do thank you for your support,” he told his colleagues, “and I do hope that the role of mayor will be more than ceremonial as we go forward.”
Whenever he cannot represent the city, he continued, he hoped other commissioners would be willing to serve in his stead.
Shaw also thanked Atwell for her service as vice mayor.
The action on May 27 was the first time in the city’s history that two minorities were elected to serve as mayor and vice mayor at the same time, City Manager Tom Barwin pointed out later that day in his weekly newsletter. Furthermore, Barwin wrote, “Since 1945, this is just the fourth time a Commissioner has been selected to serve as mayor three consecutive years.”
High points and challenges
The session also featured Shaw’s State of the City address, during which he referenced positive aspects of the past year — including the city’s issuing more than 8,000 building permits with a total value of more than $305 million — and challenges, such as the impact of all that development.
“Growth is becoming the conversation at every dining room table in the City of Sarasota,” Shaw noted. “Sarasota’s motto has been ‘the small town with urban amenities,’” he continued, “[so] this is a conversation that has to be addressed.”
Chapman and Alpert acknowledged similar concerns. (Each commissioner had the opportunity to offer comments.)
“‘Are we headed in the right direction?’” Chapman asked. “I think we hear that all the time. … Or is the quality of life that made people want to live here threatened? I sense a lot of frustration on the streets,” including concerns, she said, about “traffic gridlock that we’re not just going to be able to address by multimodal bike trails and pedestrian walkways. People are frustrated that they can’t safely cross the street” or ride their bicycles without fear of injuries.
In his address, Shaw also pointed to ongoing disagreements with the County of Sarasota. “How do we build the bridge to change the atmosphere and environment in which we live?” he asked, adding that the county had ended its payments to the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund and the annual contribution of $320,000 to support operations of the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex, both of which decisions the City Commission and city staff have challenged. The county payment into the CRA fund this year would have been about $4.5 million, city Finance Director John Lege estimated earlier this year. (See the related story in this issue.)
On a more hopeful note, Shaw talked of a recent discussion with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) in Washington, D.C., during which Nelson had promised to try to find more funding for mental health initiatives that would help the city address needs of its homeless population.
Shaw also mentioned the commission’s unanimous vote on May 16 to provide funding for the Comprehensive Treatment Court program developed by county Judge Erika Quartermaine and representatives from the State Attorney’s and Public Defender’s offices, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office and the 12th Judicial Circuit Court.
In her remarks, Chapman voiced disappointment that the city had not made as much progress as she had hoped over the past year in its efforts to create a permanent supportive housing program for homeless people in the community. Additionally, she suggested that a public education initiative about panhandling would help, as people continue to give money to homeless persons in downtown Sarasota, and those funds enable the homeless to “go buy alcohol and drugs.”
She told her colleagues she plans to work on gaining support for mental health services for the homeless, noting, “I think that this is a very caring community, and we need to challenge the caring of the citizens.”
“We have such a vibrant city of well-rounded, educated, committed people who bring ideas and support to this city,” Freeland Eddie said. “It helps us to make good decisions.”
Among other positive factors for the city over the past year, Shaw noted that crime was down 13 percent — 27 percent over the last three years; $2 million in energy expenses had been saved, thanks to lighting and heating/air conditioning system upgrades; and the city had invested about $30 million in new infrastructure, including the State Street parking garage, the roundabout at the intersection of Main Street and Orange Avenue, road resurfacing; and the streetscape improvements on First Street. He also mentioned the upgrades to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, including the “beautiful palms” and new lighting.