County Commission asks that he be allowed to take on a larger role in the next couple of months, with the expectation he will succeed Tom Harmer on a permanent basis
Barring circumstances that Sarasota County commissioners indicated they do not foresee, Assistant County Administrator Jonathan Lewis will succeed Tom Harmer as county administrator.
First, though, based on a unanimous commission vote on Aug. 21, Lewis will assume the title of “interim administrator,” effective Dec. 8, when Harmer finishes his last day with county government before joining the Town of Longboat Key as its manager.
The board members also asked this week that Harmer allow Lewis the opportunity to handle their “one-on-ones” — their routine briefings with the administrator about issues — as well as sit in for Harmer at regular meetings between now and Dec. 8.
Lewis was named assistant county administrator in late February; he began working with the county in early April. Prior to that, he was the manager of the City of North Port, a position he took in 2011.
Three of the county board members quickly made it clear on Aug. 21 that they felt a search for Harmer’s replacement was unnecessary and that Lewis seemed the best choice to take the job. “I think we’re in a remarkably fortunate spot to be in right now,” Chair Paul Caragiulo told his colleagues.
Commissioner Alan Maio was the one who proposed Lewis as Harmer’s successor. However, that prompted discussion about the speed of the initiative and the process itself.
Commissioners Nancy Detert and Michael Moran, especially, seemed to be taken by surprise by the motion. They are the newest members of the board, having been elected to their seats in November 2016.
Detert said she was not expecting a vote that morning during the board’s final budget workshop of the fiscal year. Nonetheless, she continued, “Certainly, Mr. Lewis is on all of our minds.”
Moran added that he believes Lewis “is very qualified.” Still, Moran sought clarification from County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh about the appropriate process for the board to pursue.
It took 29 minutes for Maio’s second motion — making Lewis interim administrator on Dec. 8 — to succeed.
On July 12, as the commission was wrapping up its final regular meeting before its traditional summer vacation, Harmer made public the news that he had decided to accept the formal offer from the Town of Longboat Key to succeed its manager, Dave Bullock, when Bullock retires in January.
The Longboat board approved Harmer’s contract on July 17.
With the Aug. 21 session the first the County Commission had scheduled after that summer recess, Harmer put the discussion about his successor on the agenda as the final item for consideration that day.
“My interest is in making sure the transition’s as smooth as possible,” Harmer told the board.
In a formal statement issued after the meeting, Lewis said, “I am honored and humbled to be selected by the county commission, and I am excited about the opportunity to lead this organization and to continue serving my community. I want Sarasota County citizens to know they can expect the same excellent customer service from our organization they experienced under Mr. Harmer’s leadership, and I anticipate working closely with him as we move forward.”
On Feb. 21, Harmer announced his decision to appoint Lewis assistant administrator, taking the place of Jonathan Evans, who left the county to take the job of city manager in Riviera Beach. Lewis had served as the manager of the City of North Port since 2011.
Lewis has been engaged in the negotiations to bring the Atlanta Braves to a planned West Villages complex in North Port for Spring Training starting in 2019. Additionally, he has overseen the following county departments: Planning and Development Services; Public Utilities; Public Works; Sarasota County Area Transit; and Business and Economic Development.
Prior to his tenure in North Port, Lewis served as deputy city manager in Palm Bay (2004-2011) and as assistant town manager (2000-2004) and assistant to the town manager and finance director (1999) in Belleair, a February county news release noted.
A graduate of the University of South Florida, Lewis also completed the Senior Executive in State and Local Government Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, his county biography notes.
How do you want to proceed?
On Aug. 21, Harmer suggested three options for the board to pursue in seeking his replacement: a national search led by a headhunter firm or an internal group; a “Targeted Recruitment Effort,” in which prospects identified by the county would be contacted to ascertain their interest in the position; and an “Internal Candidate Consideration.”
“The last step, to me, would be a national or headhunter [search],” Detert said. Having gone through such a process when she served on the Sarasota County School Board, she continued, she was a ware that “a lot of times, you get just a traveling troupe. … I think we have enough good people to look at first before we branch out …”
Hines explained that he joined the board in 2012 after Randall Reid was hired as county administrator, following a national search. Ultimately, Reid was fired, Hines added.
Moreover, in considering a successor for Harmer, Hines said, “I want us to keep in mind that there’s a major learning curve with Sarasota County” for someone coming to the community from another area.
“I’ll make that three that don’t want the approach of that first bullet,” Maio told his colleagues, referring to the national search suggestion. “We do not need someone who needs to be taught where South County is or Englewood is or where Venice is, or, for heaven’s sake, where Ringling Boulevard is.” (The County Administration Center in Sarasota is on Ringling Boulevard.)
“I agree with all the comments, actually,” Commissioner Michael Moran added.
“We could probably identify four or five people internally that are good,” Detert pointed out.
When Maio asked whether it would be appropriate to suggest a candidate, Chair Caragiulo replied, “You have the floor.”
Then Maio proposed Lewis. When Caragiulo asked whether Maio meant on an interim or permanent basis, Maio responded, “Let’s go permanent.”
“I met Jonathan Lewis his first day on the job down in North Port,” Maio explained. “I saw him in the throes of a community that was building and growing. … Let’s see how Mr. Lewis does over the next three months.”
Hines then suggested Lewis take on a bigger role in the weeks ahead. “I’d like to see how he handles that and then, if we get into November, and he’s done a great job and we’re comfortable, we can [offer him the job].”
Having served on the Sarasota City Commission when it undertook a national search for a new city manager — ending with the hiring of Tom Barwin in 2012 — Caragiulo told his colleagues, “I’m not really even remotely into going the headhunter way.” As for Maio’s proposal about Lewis as interim county administrator, Caragiulo added, “I’m very comfortable, very comfortable.”
“All boards are different,” Caragiulo continued. The commissioners could spend a lot of time reviewing candidates’ credentials, he said, “but you’ve got to plug [the new hire] into this ensemble. … We get to look for the next couple of months [at how Lewis handles a bigger role. … We have a great opportunity. Let’s just see where this goes.”
“I am fine with what you just described,” Detert told Caragiulo, adding, “It’s very important that we bring in a new person that we are all comfortable with.”
Referring to Lewis, she said, “I think that Mr. Harmer has already been training him.”