Most committee members agree that minority resident of city could win position, with changes having taken place in city over recent years
With some confusion having ensued over votes taken late during their Nov. 22 meeting, the members of the City of Sarasota’s Charter Review Committee took a new vote this week to clarify how a mayor should be elected and the role the person should play in city government.
On a motion put forth by Dan Clermont, seconded by Crystal Bailey, the members voted 7-3 on Dec. 13 for the City Commission to continue to have five members, three of whom would be elected to represent districts. One other person would be elected at-large, while the fifth member would be the mayor, elected at-large to serve four years.
Clermont added in his motion that the mayor would have no veto power, but the mayor would be able to cast votes on issues heard by the commission, and the mayor would have to abide by the state’s Sunshine — or open-meeting — Laws.
Further, Clermont said, the mayor would have no administrative or other powers separately from the other commissioners.
“How is this different from what we have?” Vice Chair Eileen Normile asked.
“I think the value is in the identity of the position,” Clermont responded, adding that during the discussion that evening, Normile had noted that she has no idea who the mayor of St. Petersburg is, as an example.
“I’d say most people in Sarasota don’t know who the mayor of Sarasota is,” Clermont continued, “and that’s because it is a constantly rotating position.”
The members of the City Commission each year elect someone from among themselves to serve a solitary year as mayor.
“If this person is more visible,” Clermont added, referring to his motion, “I think there’s a value in that.”
During his earlier comments, Clermont had explained that even if the City of Sarasota had what is characterized as a “weak mayor,” the person who won that office would have an opportunity to become known widely as the mayor of Sarasota. “I think Mayor [Francis] Suarez in Miami is that type of mayor,” Clermont continued. “He’s a member of the commission, but there is a consistency … I know who the mayor of Miami is.”
If the mayor of Sarasota holds a term of just one year, Clermont pointed out, “There’s no identity, really … It’s hard to really carry the ball, carry the water.”
Could a minority be elected mayor?
Committee member Cathy Antunes disagreed with Clermont’s proposal. With such a system in place in the past, she pointed out, “We would not have had a Mayor Mason.” She was referring to Carolyn Mason, a past city mayor who chairs the Charter Review Committee.
“We would not have had a Mayor Shaw,” Antunes continued, referring to past City Commissioner and Mayor Willie Charles Shaw, who lost out in the 2020 District 1 election to Kyle Scott Battie.
Antunes reminded her colleagues that City Attorney Robert Fournier had provided them background on the federal Voting Rights Act litigation filed against the city in 1979. That case led to the switch from electing all the commissioners at-large to electing three from district seats and two at-large.
“I would hate to say goodbye to mayors who truly represent our community,” Antunes stressed, “and I think we put that at risk. … Sarasota has a segregated past.”
“I agree with that wholeheartedly,” Normile responded.
“Are you saying that Erik Arroyo would not be elected because he is a minority?” committee member Kim Githler asked Antunes, referring to the current mayor, who won the District 3 seat in November 2020.
“No,” Antunes replied, pointing out that she was referring only to the history of city elections. She has lived in the city since 2003, Antunes continued, and she could not recall a minority commissioner having been elected at-large.
Mason noted that she was born in Sarasota. “You’re right, Ms. Antunes.” However, Mason added, because of the court case, “I think there’s greater opportunity now for people of color to be elected citywide.”
Still, Mason said, “I don’t think our current system is broken, so I won’t support [Clermont’s] motion.”
“I think if we look at what convoluted thing we’re trying to do here,” Normile pointed out, “we’re not getting a visionary, which was a worthwhile goal. We would be getting someone that other people know the name of, which is also a worthwhile goal,” she added, “but it’s really not worth very much at all, I don’t think.”
That was when she said she does not know who the mayor of St. Petersburg is, or the mayor of any other Florida city. “All I have to do is pick up the phone and ask.”
“I think there’s a little bity of irony,” committee member Philip DiMaria responded. “You’ll find the mayor-elect of St. Pete is a black man, Ken Welch. Anyone who’s elected at-large is more so a reflection of the community. As Sarasota becomes younger and more diverse,” DiMaria continued, “we’re going to see different folks elected.”
“I do like the idea of possibly electing a four-year mayor,” committee member Peter Fanning said, “regardless of what system we use to get there.”
He characterized such a mayor as a “point person,” whom city residents could contact if they did not like the direction in which the city was going.
Githler added, “It would be nice to have an advocate, like the President, who is there for four years, who’s consistent for four years, who’s out in the community gathering information,” who would work with the city manager to create a vision for the city.
Githler told her colleagues, “I’m not looking for a strong mayor that’s going to veto everything, that’s going to have an ego, that’s going to be corrupt.”
Normile voiced concern again — as she has during past discussions — that the city could end up with a mayor with no qualifications or experience to handle the position. The commission considers candidates for city manager partly on the basis of their resumes, she indicated. Yet, if they hire someone and the person “doesn’t hold up in the end,” the commission can fire that person, she said.
The only qualification for someone to run for mayor, Normile pointed out, is having lived in the city for a year.
Githler replied that Normile was just making an assumption that someone might run for mayor after having lived in the city no longer than a year.
The need to move on to other issues
Finally, committee member Jeff Jackson told the others, “We need to move on … The two, maybe three, people that keep having a problem with it need to either get on board or do something. We keep talking about this over and over.”
Chair Mason thanked him, adding, “We need to keep in mind that the buck doesn’t stop with us. It only starts with us.” Although the committee will make its report on recommendations to the City Commission in March 2022, “The City Commission has to chew on it, digest it, and it may not come out like we sent it to them,” Mason said, “and then the buck really stops with the voters.”
At that point, City Attorney Fournier summed up the choices as keeping the current election system or having the voters elect the mayor directly for a four-year term, with the mayor occupying one of the at-large seats on the board.
The committee members made it clear in November, he noted, that they did not want to take any administrative responsibilities away from the city manager.
After Chair Mason called for the vote, Deputy City Auditor and Clerk Lori Rivers called each member by name, as has been the practice during the meetings. Antunes, Normile and Mason cast the three “No” votes on Clermont’s motion.