Majority of Sarasota Charter Review Committee members endorse popular election of mayor

Proposal to change form of government would have to win City Commission approval and then go before voters in referendum

The Sarasota Charter Review Committee members sit in session on Nov. 9. At right front is member Jeff Jackson. The other three persons facing the committee are (from left) City Manager Marlon Brown, City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs and City Attorney Robert Fournier. News Leader image

Following more than 90 minutes of discussion, the members of the City of Sarasota’s Charter Review Committee this week voted 6-3 to approve a change in the City Charter to allow the mayor to be elected by city voters.

However, the powers that the mayor would have will be the focus of future discussions, the committee members agreed.

After all, as Chair Carolyn Mason pointed out on Nov. 9, the recommendations of the committee will be presented to the city commissioners, who will have their say on any amendments to the Charter. A change in the form of government ultimately would be decided by voters during a referendum.

The Charter Review Committee is due to present its recommendations to the City Commission in early March 2022.

Dan Clermont, who was appointed to the committee this summer by then-Mayor Hagen Brody, made the motion, and Kim Githler, who was appointed by now-Mayor Erik Arroyo, seconded it.

“I think we have to get to the ‘vision thing,’” Clermont said, noting that he was referencing a phrase used by the late President George H.W. Bush. City residents need a leader, Clermont pointed out.

Early on during the discussion, Clermont acknowledged that he is in favor of a strong mayor form of government. Having moved from a city of 100,000 people to one with about 60,000, he continued, “One of the things I’m really impressed with … [is Sarasota residents] that have extraordinary talent.”

A person with a vision for making Sarasota better might be what the city is missing, Clermont said.

Moreover, Clermont continued, when someone needs to talk about a specific issue in the community, to whom does that person go in the city organization? For example, Clermont said, who would Joe McKenna, president and CEO of the Sarasota Orchestra, talk with about the future of the Orchestra?

Charter Review Committee member Dan Clermont offers his views. News Leader image

“There are no dark intentions,” Clermont said of his viewpoint. “I think we have to meet the challenges that are coming with an executive, somebody who’s going to be here full-time. … I would like to see somebody who’s responsible to the city every day here, seeing to their agenda and seeing to the needs of the city.”

The city commissioners do not work full-time at City Hall, Clermont pointed out.

Githler told her colleagues, “I believe [having a mayor chosen by the voters] will give us a phenomenal city, even more so than what we have today.”

She said the city needs a leader who can communicate to the residents “a vision and a strategy to move into the future of Sarasota. We are competing with all the major coastal cities around us in infrastructure, in water purity, in various types of services.”

Githler also pointed out that she has difficulty hiring employees because it is so expensive to own a home in the city. The average price for a single-family residence is $564,000, she said. She is chair and CEO of MoneyShow in Sarasota.

Committee member Crystal Bailey said she also agreed with the view that the city needs a mayor who has a vision for the future.

Vice Chair Eileen Normile told her colleagues, “I have a real concern about division of power.” The federal government has three branches, with checks and balances, she pointed out.

The city needs updates of its Comprehensive Plan and its Zoning Code, Normile added, just as the Charter will be revised this year. “Let’s fix what the problem is,” she said. That does not mean the city needs a strong mayor, Normile added.

“The whole issue is what kind of power do they have,” committee member Cathy Antunes said of an elected mayor.

Committee member Peter Fanning pointed out that, at the end of their months of work, he and his colleagues might decide to revisit their Nov. 9 vote.

Chair Mason agreed. Still, she said, “We can’t keep sitting on the fence on things that are difficult or painful for us.” Much more work is left to be done, she noted, and the decision on how the mayor’s position should be structured will have an effect on many of those.

Along with Clermont and Githler, Fanning and committee members Bailey, Philip DiMaria and Jeff Jackson voted in favor of the motion. Mason, Normile and Antunes opposed it.

Public viewpoints

During public remarks that evening, six city residents voiced support for maintaining the City Commission/city manager form of government under which the City of Sarasota operates. Only Diana Hamilton urged the committee members to recommend that the City Commission approve a Charter amendment that would put an elected executive mayor in place.

“We need someone with vision, a leadership person, a point person who can handle [issues],” Hamilton said. “I’m not sure why it is we believe we would get the bad mayor.”

John Mercer reads his statement to the Charter Review Committee members. News Leader image

Conversely, John Mercer, a former mayor of Sunnyvale, Calif., who served as deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under the late President Ronald Regan, pointed to research that he asked his HUD staff members to undertake in the 1980s. Using two different databases, whose information they merged, he said, his staff members found that cities with the least distress were those with the council/manager form of government.

“Yes, it is from quite a while back,” he acknowledged of the information, but he emphasized that he believes the findings “would hold up today.”

Another speaker, Kelly Franklin, talked about having read the backup agenda material for the discussion that night, which included a document that Clermont had submitted. It compared the City of Sarasota’s form of government to those in Tampa, Bradenton and Venice. The Tampa material included the statement that the mayor, who “serves as the Executive and does not participate as a member of the legislative branch of City government,” is the person who “negotiates all contracts, agreements and leases with the majority approval of the Council.”

After reading that, she continued, she realized “We might have some different ideas about why local governments exist and what they’re supposed to do.

“To my mind,” Franklin told the committee members, “local governments don’t make deals. They set the local rule of law by passing legislative ordinances to apply equally to all. They operate in Sunshine under a statutory Florida code of ethics for public officers and employees, and their main job is to provide essential services …” Among the latter, she noted, are providing clean water, sanitation, public safety and shared infrastructure, such as roads and sidewalks.

Sarasota’s government, Franklin added, “isn’t broke. Please, let’s stop trying to fix it.”

Back at the dais

“Sarasota is changing,” Mason said during the discussion, noting that she was born in the city. “I think change is good,” she continued. The problems that arise, she added, “come from how the change occurs.”

Charter Review Committee Chair Carolyn Mason makes a point during the Nov. 9 discussion. News Leader image

The city’s leaders should be considering measures to keep the residents of the community engaged in issues, Mason added — “how to keep in front of people that the government belongs to them, and they have an important role in how it is shaped.”

At one time, Mason told her colleagues, she did support the idea of an elected mayor. “I don’t feel like that anymore.”

When Bailey asked Mason about that change of view, Mason explained that she favored an elected mayor during a period when the city was growing “and somebody needed to be in charge.”

Then a change in the city manager’s position occurred, Mason continued.

“When you have elected officials,” Mason pointed out, “there’s always the opportunity for a bad egg or two — or three.” The Charter, she said, “is where we put the checks and balances to make sure those bad eggs get dealt with … So I changed my mind, much like the city has been changing over the years.”

Committee member Jeff Jackson agreed about the need for checks and balances in a form of government with an elected mayor.

Fanning told his colleagues that he had been struggling with the idea of the best form of government for the city. Then he started thinking about “things that were broken,” that could be solved with a different system.

For example, he continued, would the downtown parking meter program have had a different outcome when it first was implemented about a decade ago if an elected mayor had been involved in it? “Would we have sold our excess parking meters for a dime on the dollar” after residents demanded their removal?,” he asked.

Charter Committee member Peter Fanning. News Leader image

Would the Sarasota Orchestra be planning on a new venue in the city “if we had a mayor?”

He was referring to the Orchestra’s proposal for a performing arts hall in Payne Park, which residents decried. The public pushback led to the majority of the city commissioners refusing to allow that to happen.

Then Fanning said, “Maybe it’s not so much a fixing problem. We have a Charter that doesn’t work as well as it should.” Perhaps the solution, he continued, is to strengthen the Charter “in every possible way …”

DiMaria told Fanning, “You make compelling statements.”
DiMaria added, “I see an increasingly competitive environment when it comes to governments. I see Sarasota County operate like a well-oiled machine.”

The city Charter includes language that says it is appropriate for the mayor to take action “in times of crisis,” DiMaria continued. “There is some feeling on my part that we are at a tipping point,” especially in regard to the economy, he continued. “I do feel as if we are in a little bit of a crisis when it comes to leadership.”

Normile concurred about the city’s being “in a time of crisis” in terms of leadership. “I would think that this year, in particular, has been a cautionary tale of what a strong mayor can do to the city.”

She was referring to the late-March incident that three city employees documented in statements to the Human Relations Department. Mayor Brody became angry about a Facebook post that city staff had put up and demanded to see City Manager Marlon Brown, though Brown was tied up with appointments on his schedule.

Kathy King, executive assistant to the city manager, wrote in her statement that Brody was yelling and cursing. One of the other employees noted in her statement that she “feared that the Mayor might react violently towards City Manager Brown or City Staff.” The latter employee added, “I have never seen anyone in the workplace act out like this, filled with so much rage.”

This is part of the statement that Kathy King, executive assistant to the city manager, gave to Human Resources about the March 29 incident. Mary Bensel is the executive director of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Jan Thornburg is the city’s senior communications manager, and Alexya Alvarenga is the administrative assistant to the city commissioners. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

After a July 19 discussion, the majority of the city commissioners ultimately voted against an outside investigation of the incident. Brody ended up issuing an apology for his behavior, via text, to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

During the commission discussion, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, who had asked for the item to be placed on the agenda, pointed out that the city Charter had no rules that allowed for board action in response to a situation such as the one on March 29.

Committee Vice Chair Eileen Normile. News Leader image

It was “almost providential,” Normile told her colleagues on Nov. 9, that the Brody incident occurred this year, before the Charter review began.

“If this had been a true strong mayor,” she said, the Florida Statutes’ procedures for a recall vote would not have enabled city citizens to remove Brody from office. “You have to murder your mother on videotape and have it available with a good chain of custody in order to recall an elected official, versus the firing of, let’s say, a city manager,” she pointed out.

City Manager Brown does a very good job of being a steward of the city and implementing policies, Clermont said. However, the problem, Clermont noted again, is the lack of leadership. “I have a much more sunny view of the people of our city and the abilities they have.”

The City Commission has five members, Mason responded, and a city manager is in place. “That’s where your leadership is.”