In-depth discussion on ‘strong mayor’ model of government to be focus of Sarasota Charter Review Committee members on Nov. 9

Oct. 11 comments make evident the split views of appointees of City Commission

The Sarasota Charter Review Committee members sit in session on Oct. 11. Facing them are (foreground, from left) City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs, City Attorney Robert Fournier, former Mayor Willie Shaw and Jim Lampl. News Leader image

Past initiatives to create a strong-mayor form of government for the City of Sarasota may have failed, but an Oct. 11 discussion of the members of the city’s Charter Review Committee underscores that a revival of that topic will be a major focus of their work.

With two of the committee members absent — Carolyn Mason and Jeff Jackson — those present agreed to a suggestion by Kim Githler that they wait until Nov. 9, when they already had planned to put the strong mayor issue in the spotlight, to delve into it at depth. They also hope to hear that night from many city residents, they indicated.

The issue arose on Oct. 11 after Lynn Tipton, director of the Florida League of Cities’ University, provided the Charter Review Committee members an overview of municipal charter matters, including the forms of government that Sarasota’s peer cities use.

Tipton had explained the three traditional means of putting a mayor in place in a Florida municipality:

  • Election at large.
  • Election from within the commission for a one-year term, with nominations from the commissioners.
  • Rotational: Each commissioner has a year in which to serve as mayor.

Then she had explained forms of municipal government in the state are as follows:

  • The commission model, in which each elected official oversees one or more departments autonomously. The members come together as a legislative body to make decisions. That form of government “has largely gone away,” Tipton noted.
  • The “weak mayor” model, in which the mayor is ceremonial; the person may preside at meetings but generally handles events in which honors are accorded. No city in Florida with more than 20,000 people has that form of government, she added. (Sarasota’s population estimate for 2020 was 57,683, the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research says.)
  • The “strong mayor” model, in which the mayor serves as the elected executive and is responsible for the day-to-day administration of the city. The majority of such mayors have no vote, not even to break a tie on the commission, Tipton pointed out. The Cities of Apopka and Orlando are an exception, she said, as they do let their mayors vote on municipal business.
  • The commission-manager form of government, in which the city manager serves in a fashion akin to the CEO of a company, handling the day-to-day administration. Usually, the manager oversees all the employees; recommends policies to the commissioners; prepares the annual budget; and serves as an adviser to the commissioners to the extent they wish to allow that, she noted.

That is “the most prevalent form [of municipal government] in the United States” and in Florida, Tipton said. Of the 411 Florida cities, she added, 280 use that model.

Some hybrid forms of government do exist in the state, nonetheless, she pointed out. For example, the City of Bradenton changed its form of government a couple of years ago to include a manager, but the mayor retains the power to hire and fire the police chief without a vote of the council members. The mayor of Bradenton also votes on city issues, Tipton said.

This is one of the slides Lynn Tipton of the Florida League of Cities showed the committee members on Oct. 11 meeting. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Lessons in Sarasota history

Following Tipton’s presentation, Committee member Cathy Antunes referenced materials that she had reviewed in announcing, “I think we need to define what problem we’re looking to solve if we’re going to change things.”

In 1996, she continued, a referendum was conducted on the question of whether the city should have an elected ceremonial mayor. The proposal was defeated by 52% of the voters, Antunes said.

In 2002, 70% of voters cast ballots in opposition to a proposal for an amendment to the City Charter calling for the election of a strong mayor.

In 2006, a Charter Review Committee considered the strong mayor model but did not recommend it, Antunes continued.

Then, in 2009, Antunes said, a referendum on a hybrid form of elected mayor’s position was shot down by 65% of the voters. She acknowledged that she was unable to find out exactly what that proposal entailed.

In 2010, she added, the members of the Charter Review Committee did not recommend switching to the election of a mayor.

Charter Review Committee member Cathy Antunes (left) reads from materials she had gathered before the Oct. 11 meeting as committee member Crystal Bailey listens. News Leader image

Finally, Antunes said, in 2014, “Quite a strong elected mayor” position was proposed. However, the supporters of that initiative were unable to gain enough signatures of registered city voters to get that measure on the ballot.

“There’s a lot of history here,” Antunes pointed out. The current Charter Review Committee members need to keep it in mind, she added, as they hold their discussions.

“I agree with you,” Vice Chair Eileen Normile responded. (Chair Carolyn Mason was absent because of illness, Normile noted earlier.)

Committee member Peter Fanning then pointed out to his colleagues that the 2014 undertaking focused on more than just the position of mayor. That effort included an attempt to change the date of the city elections, which were being conducted in the spring, and it called for the city commissioners to be elected from five districts. (The current system has representatives from three districts and two members elected at-large.)

Fanning indicated that people tend to focus only on the question about the mayor.

This is one of the slides that Lynn Tipton of the Florida League of Cities provided to the members in advance of the Oct. 11 meeting. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“I remember that initiative very clearly,” Normile told him. The proposal also called for the mayor to be able to veto City Commission decisions, she said. Further, it would have ensured no recall mechanism for the mayor, no stipulation for the mayor to operate under the state’s Sunshine Law — which pertains to open government — and the elimination of the position of city manager. “So that’s pretty strong to me,” she added of the “strong mayor” idea.

Fanning countered that many city residents did not favor the switch to single-member district voting for the commissioners.

“This didn’t make it to the ballot,” Antunes reminded the committee members. “It was extremely ambitious.”

She cautioned her colleagues that if they are going to contemplate changes to the mayoral position, they all “need to be respectful of the history.”

Normile pointed out that they can consider the various elements of that 2014 initiative as they proceed with their work.

Committee member Wayne Ruben indicated his displeasure with the Sunshine Law facet of that proposal.

Philip DiMaria. File image

However, committee member Philip DiMaria told the group, “I think it’s also important just to state that the folks that would be voting on this are completely different” than they were in past referenda.

The first time he voted in a city election, he noted, he was one of just 36 of those citizens who were under the age of 24.

Committee member Crystal Bailey concurred with DiMaria about the fact that “the constituency has changed significantly.”

Yet, Normile reminded her colleagues that she and Fanning both had lived in the city for many years and would be continuing to vote in the future.

Committee member Dan Clermont pointed out that the City Charter calls for a charter review at least every 10 years, and circumstances change each decade. “I don’t want to consider or not consider this question simply because it’s been voted on [in the past],” he said.

The Charter Review Committee is to present its formal report to the City Commission on March 7, 2022, the City Commission decided in a unanimous vote on June 7.

These are the Charter Review Committee members grouped by the city commissioner who appointed them. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

A sampling of public opinion

Before Antunes brought up the topic, the committee members heard from three members of the public.

First, Mary Ciner, who addressed them via Zoom, called for a switch to single-member districts for all of the commissioners. She also asked the group to consider proposing that the commissioners elect a chair and vice chair, so none of them appears to have more power than another.

Ciner added that she opposed a change in the form of government for the City of Sarasota.

Then former Mayor Willie Charles Shaw told the committee members that he is “in total support of our form of government.”
Shaw added, “We cannot find anything better, believe me,” indicating that he knew that fact from serving in state and national positions with organizations representing municipal officials.

Jim Lampl (left) addresses the committee members on Oct. 11 as Willie Shaw listens. News Leader image

Finally, Jim Lampl, who served on the 2010 Charter Review Committee, said he agreed with Ciner about using “chair” and “vice chair” on the commission and about the elimination of the at-large positions. An election for the latter seats, Lampl said, “brings out the big donors. … I think [at-large voting is] more exposed to corruption.”

Moreover, Lampl recommended that the Charter Review Committee members call for changes in the qualifications for candidates for commission. Anyone wishing to serve on the board, he said, should have served on various committees to gain experience in local government issues. “There’s got to be a standard. Sarasota’s better than that.”

An individual seeking a City Commission seat, Lampl added, should be required to meet certain educational prerequisites, as well, instead of being “the most popular person.”

City managers have to undergo considerable training and earn certifications, he pointed out. The city attorney and the city auditor and clerk have to undergo training as well, Lampl noted.

That is all the more reason, he indicated, that City Commission candidates should have to meet specific criteria for service.

The manager, the city attorney and the city auditor and clerk are the city’s three “Charter officials.”