Sarasota vice mayor fails to win colleagues’ support for call to implement city employee hiring freeze

Other commissioners say Interim City Manager Brown needs flexibility to deal with staffing issues

Sarasota Vice Mayor Erik ‘E’ Arroyo makes comments during the Jan. 4 City Commission meeting. News Leader image

Sarasota Vice Mayor Erik “E” Arroyo found no “takers” this week when he proposed a full hiring freeze for city employees.

Instead, his colleagues concurred with each other that the recommendation could hamper city operations.

Commissioner Liz Alpert pointed out that such a freeze would allow for no discretion on the part of Interim City Manager Marlon Brown to fill a critical position. For example, she said, “If our finance director leaves, we’re not going to have a finance director? … Some positions really have to be filled.”

During the City Commission’s regular meeting on Jan. 4, Arroyo pointed out, “During the last recession, we had 250 less employees in the city.” In the past seven years, he continued, 150 more people have been hired.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Arroyo noted, staff has not been reduced. “We need to make these tough decisions,” he told his colleagues.

He was not proposing that any positions be eliminated, Arroyo said. “I’m just asking that we have a full hiring freeze with the exception of [the Sarasota Police Department] and the Utilities Department.”

If a position is vacant, he added, it should not be filled.

The only member of the public who signed up to address the board on the topic — which Arroyo had asked to be placed on the Jan. 4 agenda — was city business owner Martin Hyde, who has failed twice to win a seat on the commission.

“Most people don’t quit their jobs in a recession,” Hyde pointed out. If a hiring freeze were implemented in the city, he said, “You’d probably lose 2%,” or 15 people, out of the total number of employees.

Furthermore, Hyde told the board members, he had calculated that each city employee costs the city about $75,000 per year. Therefore, he continued, “Twenty grand a week is the cost of not imposing a hiring freeze.”

Hyde stressed that the commissioners would not be “kicking people out.” Instead, city administrators would not be replacing employees who left.

City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch participates in the Jan. 4 meeting via remote technology. News Leader image

When Mayor Hagen Brody invited responses from the other board members, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch said, “I am not in support … of implementing a full hiring freeze at this point in time.”

Interim City Manager Brown and Interim Deputy City Manager Pat Robinson should discuss the staffing levels with the department chiefs, Ahearn-Koch continued. “This is not a one-size-fits-all situation.” Still, she acknowledged, “I think [Arroyo’s suggestion] is coming from a good place.”

Newly elected Commissioner Kyle Scott Battie said he concurred with Ahearn-Koch. The commissioners in December approved the naming of then-Deputy City Manager Brown as interim city manager after then-City Manager Tom Barwin chose to retire, Battie continued. With that decision, the commissioners were asking Brown to use his better judgment and his discretion in his actions, Battie added. “I’ll leave [hiring decisions] up to his expertise …”

Brody noted his long-time concerns about the city’s budgeting process and his worries about making decisions in regard to the budget for the 2022 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1, 2021. (Local revenue and state revenue that is shared with local governments have been down this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.) However, Brody said, “I don’t want to micromanage city staff. Our Charter really doesn’t allow that or encourage it.”

The budget, he stressed, is what “affects the taxpayers.”

Contending with the pandemic’s fiscal repercussions

Brody asked Brown for his thoughts on the proposed hiring freeze.

Interim City Manager Marlon Brown. Image via Twitter

After the pandemic began, Brown began, “We did eliminate a number of positions and we did freeze a number of positions last year.” Further, “We did not request any new positions in this year’s budget. We basically remain status quo.”
Brown also pointed out that he had been in his new position slightly less than a month.

Moreover, Brown continued, if the commissioners allowed new employees to be hired just for the Police Department and the Utilities Department, that could lead to problems. For example, Brown told the commissioners, if the Development Services Department lost employees and could not replace them, “I assure you contractors, neighborhood representatives, developers would be knocking your doors down because they can’t get their applications reviewed.” He reminded the board members that the city has a figurative “shot clock,” which dictates that land-development applications must be processed within a specific amount of time.

“I would strongly suggest,” Brown said, that the commissioners allow him and Interim Deputy City Manager Robinson to make the decisions regarding staffing “when critical shortages do occur. … We are not trying to hire randomly.”

He also stressed that department directors have to justify the hiring of any new employees.

As for the 2022 fiscal year budget: Brown noted, “I’ve heard loud and clear” that that is one of the major concerns of this commission. “Give us the ability to work with you,” he said, “to implement a budget that you are satisfied with and can approve.” The process will begin in February, he pointed out, and it will continue until the budget’s adoption in July.

“I do agree,” Brody responded. “I really just feel … that we have to give Mr. Brown … an opportunity to manage the city,” Brody told his colleagues, especially if the commission eventually removes the “interim” from Brown’s title. “Our job is more of a policy direction.”

Brody added, “I just don’t know if we have the extensive knowledge of each department to know which department may need another person … across the city.”

Nonetheless, Brody said, “We’re going into a tough year,” as the pandemic continues.

When Brody turned to Arroyo for any further remarks, Arroyo said, “We are the board of directors for the city,” while the city manager is the equivalent of a CEO. “We advise him on policy.”

In the “roughly 60 days” since he was elected, Arroyo continued, he had seen three positions come open that pay more than $100,000 a year. “It’s concerning. … We need to be a strong commission that sets policy.” Otherwise, he added, “We become ‘Yes’ humans.”

Then Arroyo announced that he would withdraw the agenda item.

When Brody asked City Attorney Robert Fournier whether that action would be appropriate, Fournier replied, “Well, sure,” since Arroyo asked for the discussion.

“All right,” Brody said. “That’s fine.”