Light duty for Barwin’s first city meeting

Photo by Norman Schimmel

Most residents of the city will get their first glimpse of the new Sarasota city manager when they tune in for the City Commission meeting on Tuesday afternoon, Sept 4. Tom Barwin will take his seat for the first time at the dais.

City Hall will be closed Sept. 3 for Labor Day, so instead of being held as usual on Monday, the City Commission meeting was pushed off until the following day, starting at the traditional time of 2:30 p.m. And as is becoming a habit, the hottest issue is the final one on the agenda of the evening session.

The afternoon session will start off with two ordinances on the consent agenda for second readings before adoption. One modifies a November charter amendment clarifying the city clerk and auditor’s duties concerning pensions; it eliminates language that could jeopardize $500,000 in state payments for Sarasota’s retired firefighters. However, passage in the afternoon isn’t the entire solution. The pension issue will not be resolved until the last agenda item of the evening.

The second ordinance up for final adoption in the afternoon concerns the new state-mandated building code, which includes special provisions for construction in the floodplain. While the ordinance is complex and lengthy, the commission has no option but to adopt it if the city is to retain its ability to qualify residents for federal flood insurance.

Under “Unfinished Business,” the commission will be asked to settle a lawsuit and pay $6,000 for alleged violations of Florida’s Government in the Sunshine law. The issue concerns the city’s Public Art Committee and a subcommittee that really wasn’t a subcommittee (all parties now agree). The proposed agreement voids a City Commission decision to spend about $50,000 on a downtown art project and sends the issue back to square one.

The final item for the afternoon was put on the agenda by City Commissioner Paul Caragiulo. It is a discussion of “ordinances regarding vagrancy.” The issue became a hot topic when, two weeks ago, Mayor Suzanne Atwell said, “I’m not comfortable going downtown anymore.” There is no back-up material available with the agenda, so the focus of the discussion is unclear.

The evening session is scheduled to open with Sarasota Police Sgt. Tom Shanafelt receiving an award for being named City Employee of the Month.

Then two staffers in the city Auditor and Clerk’s Office will be recognized for receiving a “Telly” award for production of The City Business Show. Miles Larson and John Nopper were honored in the Internet/online programs category. More than 12,000 entries vie worldwide for Telly awards, which recognize excellence in video and film production.

The city commissioners then will begin 12 public hearings. Only the last one has the potential to be a nail-biter. The preceding 11 involve pro-forma resolutions required for passage of a complete city budget.

The final public hearing covers the modification of language in a petition-generated charter amendment they also is on the ballot in November. The people who drafted the amendment used identical language that was in the ordinance expected to be repaired earlier in the day. That language was used because the drafters believed – after review by the City Charter Review Committee, the city attorney and City Commission – the language was acceptable.

However, opponents of the petition-generated charter amendment (which splits the city auditor and clerk’s position in half and strengthens the office of the city manager) seized on the language as a reason to defeat the amendment and save the firefighters’ pensions.

This is the final – and unexpected – opportunity for the public to speak about the petition-generated charter amendment and about how the City Commission is amending the language of it after the petitions were certified.

While the City Commission cannot withhold the amendment from the ballot, because voters — by petition — demand the issue be put to election, the commission may or may not change the language that could jeopardize the state contribution to the firefighters’ pensions.

A vote to change the language ensures the state money will continue to come to the firefighters, and it strengthens the chances of the amendment’s passage, because firefighters won’t actively fight the amendment. A vote against the change keeps the pension contribution in peril and stimulates the firefighters to work for the amendment’s defeat at the polls.

The commissioners will return to City Hall on Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 5, for a workshop concerning the city’s three pension plans. They are inviting the three pension administration boards to sit in the audience, plus all the lawyers, accountants, financial advisors and actuaries involved in the three plans.

The issue is simple: What are the historical trends and assumed rates of return for these plans in the future? Estimates of return rates in the past have proven overly ambitious and have led to a shortfall in pension receipts compared to what is necessary to keep the accounts fluid.

If you plan on attending or watching the Wednesday afternoon workshop, wear your horn-rim glasses and a plastic pocket protector, because you will be going deep into policy wonk territory.