Post-vacation agenda a whopper for the City Commission

Photo by Norman Schimmel

Welcome back, city commissioners. There’s a big, meaty agenda waiting for you Monday, Aug. 20. Bring your No-Doz and your Dramamine.

The meeting is set to start at 2:30 p.m. with the approval of five sets of minutes from a month of regular and special meetings and workshops. The commission then will consider 17 items on its consent agenda, including the purchase of four new garage doors for the Sarasota Police Department headquarters on Adams Lane.

“The project will replace the roll-up doors at the police department that are in disrepair due to usage patterns not originally anticipated and rated for in the initial installation,” a staff memo says. The cost? $118,890, or roughly $30,000 apiece. The building opened Aug. 3, 2010, two years and two weeks ago.

The Sarasota Police Department headquarters faces Payne Park. Photo by Norman Schimmel

Also on the consent agenda is a “new strategy” for the Sarasota Police Department “for policing the Newtown area” of north Sarasota. Putting “strategy” on the consent agenda is a new wrinkle for the City Commission.

The strategy is actually a resolution covering the area between 17th Street and Myrtle Street to the north, and Washington Boulevard west to Cocoanut Avenue.

The resolution admits a great failure: “Whereas, law enforcement attempts to deal with the problem by conventional law enforcement methods have failed to reduce that crime level and joint efforts by members of the community and law enforcement have failed to establish transparency and trust between the two which are essential to improving the situation …”

The resolution calls for the adoption of a “remedial policing strategy practiced in High Point, North Carolina ….”

The commission then is supposed to move to unfinished business, including a “substantial amendment” to a $1 million federal grant for neighborhood stabilization for Gillespie Park and part of Park East. “After 16 months, staff and the non-profit partners have been unable to identify suitable properties within the NSP3 area,” a staff memo says.

The money was to buy and fix up foreclosed properties. But investors and homeowners got there first and “stabilized the area without the need of federal assistance,” according to the memo. Staff wants to use the money instead for “land banking,” buying distressed properties and tearing them down. The land could be sold or developed for up to 10 years in the future.

More strategy comes up in the next three items of unfinished business. These concern “strategic plan objectives” regarding electronic message boards, residential front yard walls and Laurel Park’s request for administrative approval revisions.

Paving paradise? Or just a ditch?

This mailer went to city and county residents.

The “strategic plan objectives” are to be followed by a million-dollar land deal — maybe a multi-million-dollar land deal — with the city selling parkland at the northeast corner of Fruitville Road and Beneva Road to a private developer. This week a flier appeared in carefully selected mailboxes around town, urging rejection of the deal. “Stop turning parks into parking lots. Stop your elected commission from making sweetheart deals with public property,” says the four-color cardboard mailer.

For months the 11-acre parcel has been in play. Benderson Development Co. wants to build a shopping center on the land, which not only has a huge ditch on it but also the county’s fire training center. Benderson has offered $1.5 million to the city.

However, Commodore Realty, represented by Brian Lichterman, has put up $3 million for the property, offering to build a “mixed-use” development with residential and commercial tenants. The contract with Benderson is ready to sign on Monday, but Lichterman gets one last chance to change the commission’s mind — or force another postponement.

It is noteworthy this is the first time in the memory of the city planning staff or long-time residents that a flier has been mailed concerning a public land deal. It arrived with the usual last-minute campaign fliers, and it is the same size and format as they often do. It did not, however, go out en mass. (Reporter’s note: At the Walmart public meeting on Wednesday evening, I showed the flier to people from several different neighborhoods. Only former Mayor Kelly Kirschner said he had received one, as this reporter had.)

Rounding out the afternoon

A political zombie is back. Five times in the past 16 years, a proposal has come up to change the city’s form of government to one with a mayor elected at large and no professional city manager. In 1996, 2002, 2006, 2009 and 2011, the idea was proposed. On two occasions (2006 and 2011) the Sarasota Charter Review Committee was asked to promote the switch, and both times it declined. On three occasions (1996, 2002 and 2009), the idea was put before the voters after petition drives. Each time it failed.

Now it’s 2012, and the undead is back at the door. Commissioner Paul Caragiulo is promoting a charter change to create the strongest mayor yet. Assuming there is time in the afternoon, the City Commission will take testimony about a form of government with a mayor elected at-large and commissioners from five districts. If there is no time, the testimony, discussion and a possible vote on the proposal late would shift to the evening session, maybe even after the “witching hour.”

The hits keep coming

The evening session is expected to begin on a pleasant note with the recognition of Joe Agriesti as the City Employee of the Month. Then Mayor Suzanne Atwell will proclaim Aug. 25 as “Women’s Equality Day.”

After those actions, the City Commission will receive a presentation on the 2012 Suncoast Super Boat Grand Prix, which annually raises millions for a variety of charities for children — to say nothing about the millions in the coffers of local hotels and restaurants over the Fourth of July holiday.

That is to be followed by three public hearings. One regards the annexation of an enclave of 15 homes on Floyd Street. The second concerns adoption of a new Floodplain Management Ordinance with hazard maps as required by the Legislature’s spring passage of a new Florida Building Code.

The final public hearing of the evening will attempt to set right a mini-disaster approved earlier this year that could strip the city’s retired firefighters of half-a-million dollars annually in their pension fund. City Attorney Robert Fournier wants to correct language suggested by City Auditor and Clerk Pam Nadalini to a city charter amendment proposed last year.

The so-called “Housekeeping Amendment” contained language the city attorney believes would cause state pension administrators to kill a state contribution to the firefighters’ pension. The issue came up when the same language was used in another charter-change petition, with which the attorney found fault. Why he didn’t spot the problem earlier when the language was under review in the Housekeeping Amendment is unknown.

The Sarasota News Leader broke the story that Nadalini’s amendment language was the first to threaten the firefighter pensions, and that the problem had not been discovered either by Nadalini’s staff or the city attorney.

Finished? No way. Any unfinished business left over from the afternoon will show up next — which is to say, Caragiulo’s strongest-mayor-ever charter change. The plan is also endorsed by City Commission candidate Richard Dorfman. He and Caragiulo reportedly hope to pack the chambers with people eager to speak in favor of the idea.

If approved by the City Commission, the measure would appear on the city ballot in March 2013.

Issues of vagrancy and sunshine

The next agenda item will be a presentation by Chief of Police Mikel Hollaway about vagrancy in the city. Interim City Manager Terry Lewis asked the chief to send out his captains – one captain per evening – to walk the streets and come back with their impressions. Is vagrancy increasing? Are vagrants becoming more aggressive? Anecdotal evidence from downtown residents prompted Lewis to look for answers. On Monday evening, the commission will hear what the captains found.

The best was saved for last. The final agenda item of the long evening is the settlement of a lawsuit alleging violation of the Florida Government in the Sunshine Act concerning a public art steering committee. For roughly $6,000 in legal fees, the plaintiff, George Haborak, and Citizens for Sunshine will drop their suit.

In a muddle we reported on in June, an ad hoc “steering committee” recommended the city spend $55,000 for a set of nine small bronze sculptures as part of an interactive public art project downtown. However, the ad hoc committee did not advertise its deliberations.

The settlement declares void the city’s authorization to spend the money and subsequently to determine the theme of the project. The ad hoc committee “would cease to exist,” said City Attorney Fournier’s memo. In other words, the project would be back to Square One.

However, the consequences go a little further. City staffer Clifford Smith has been working as the staff liaison with the Public Art Committee, but he would be reassigned. Virginia Hoffman, who served as the volunteer project coordinator, was also cited in the lawsuit. The interim city manager eliminated her position.

Any emails between Smith and Hoffman are exempt from Sunshine requirements, Fournier argues, because they were both staff members, not steering committee members, in their capacity on the committee. Staff correspondence is not automatically open to the public.

If the commissioners approve the settlement for $6,000, the nine-statue Sunshine suit case will be closed.

1 thought on “Post-vacation agenda a whopper for the City Commission”

  1. Thanks for such good coverage—from describing a horrifying proposal for “the strongest mayor yet” down to the welcome extermination of the Mice on Main debacle—your readers go forth unto this Monday ordeal prepared (even if not enthusiastic)!

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