Jonathan Lewis the choice of full County Commission to replace County Administrator Harmer

Board members authorize contract negotiations, indicating hopefulness that the process will be completed early in January

Interim County Administrator Jonathan Lewis participates in discussions at the Dec. 8 County Commission retreat. Rachel Hackney photo

With emphasis essentially on ”as soon as possible,” the Sarasota County commissioners this week directed County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh to initiate contract negotiations with Interim County Administrator Jonathan Lewis. They were unanimous in their desire to have Lewis become the county’s next administrator.

On a motion by Commissioner Michael Moran, seconded by Commissioner Alan Maio, DeMarsh will work with Lewis in an effort to reach terms of a contract before the end of January.

At 5 p.m. on Dec. 8, Lewis took over for his former boss at Sarasota County Government, Tom Harmer, who had left to become manager of the Town of Longboat Key. Harmer announced in July that he planned to accept the offer of the town to replace its retiring manager, Dave Bullock.

In August, after the county commissioners returned from their summer break, they voted unanimously to ask Lewis to become interim administrator.

Then, during their regular meeting on Nov. 14, Moran brought up the topic of contract negotiations. At that time, DeMarsh and Harmer explained that it would be inappropriate to begin such talks until after Lewis formally had become interim administrator.

Maio noted during the board’s Dec. 12 meeting that he was prepared to make a motion in November to authorize the negotiations to start this month, but Commissioner Nancy Detert had just said she wanted more time to become familiar with Lewis’ management style.

On Dec. 12, Detert was quick to follow Moran and Maio in calling for the contract work to begin. “I’m afraid he’s going to quit before we lock him in,” she joked of Lewis.

In a Dec. 13 telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader, Lewis said he was “definitely surprised” by the board vote this week. “I’m excited about the opportunity,” adding, “There are not a whole lot of places like Sarasota County.”

When he began working as an assistant county administrator in early April, he added, the idea of being the next county administrator “was not on the radar.” In fact, he pointed out, Harmer had made it clear that his plan was to stay with the county another five to eight years.

“It was three months into my stay,” Lewis said, when Harmer announced to the commission that he wanted to take the Longboat Key job.

Because the board members voted in late August to appoint him interim administrator, Lewis continued, they have had the opportunity to spend time with him as he has handled highly visible initiatives, including overseeing the county’s efforts to collect all the Hurricane Irma debris.

Former County Administrator Tom Harmer is the new town manager of Longboat Key. File photo

Harmer named Lewis assistant county administrator on Feb. 21. Lewis had served as city manager of North Port since 2011. A graduate of the University of South Florida, he previously held management positions with the municipalities of Palm Bay and Belleair.

Lewis also completed the Senior Executive in State and Local Government Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, his county biography notes.

On Dec. 8, during the board’s annual retreat, Lewis talked about one Sarasota County initiative with which he gained familiarity long before he became assistant county administrator. As a student at the University of South Florida (USF), he worked on the Citizen Opinion Survey that Susan A, MacManus, a USF Distinguished Professor, has conducted annually for the county.

Wasting no time

On Dec. 12, Commissioner Moran once again was the board member to bring up the topic of contract negotiations. The commissioners were wrapping up their reports at their regular meeting in Venice when Moran asked Chair Paul Caragiulo if he could raise one more issue.

If something happened during the negotiations that would necessitate the board’s having to pursue a different direction to replace Harmer, Moran said, “I would rather know that sooner in the process.”

“I don’t have any problem with us beginning the process,” Maio responded. “I’m extremely happy with Mr. Lewis.” Still, Maio added, “Commissioner Moran makes a good point.”

Maio noted that he not only was the commissioner who made the motion to name Lewis interim administrator but that he also made the motion in November to approve a pay boost for Lewis in that post — from $163,010 to $185,000.

“Yes, I think the sooner, the better,” Detert said, since Harmer had left. “I’m for moving forward with contract negotiations as quickly as possible.”

Commissioner Charles Hines concurred that the board members were at the right time to authorize those discussions. He had not wanted to see that process rushed, he added, and then he offered hope that the contract could be finalized early in 2018.

Commissioner Michael Moran. Filephoto

When Moran asked DeMarsh whether a motion would be appropriate to direct DeMarsh to handle the negotiations, DeMarsh replied, “Certainly, that’s appropriate. I have a lot of experience in this, unfortunately, “ he said with a chuckle.

Harmer was made interim administrator in October 2013, after the commission seated at that time fired County Administrator Randall Reid, who had been in the job since January 2012. Harmer became administrator after a unanimous vote on Jan. 28, 2014.

Reid was hired after a national search that the board undertook following the 2011 resignation of County Administrator Jim Ley in the wake of a Procurement Department scandal. Ley held the job for about 14 years.

Moran initially indicated on Dec. 12 that he hoped the board would be able to approve Lewis’ contract by the end of January 2018.

“The timeline is more than sufficient,” DeMarsh said.

Detert then interjected, “Can we do it sooner?” Would it take him more than a month, she asked DeMarsh.

“Not from my perspective,” DeMarsh told her.

After seconding Moran’s motion, Maio said, “I want emphasis on the ‘sooner.’”

“I’m very much in support,” Caragiulo said.