‘Strong manager’ initiative makes the November ballot

The Sarasota City Commission in session. Photo by Norman Schimmel

As a result of a professional citizen petition drive, Sarasota city voters in November will consider changing their charter to strengthen the city manager at the expense of the auditor and clerk.

“It took five weeks to gather 3,297 signatures,” Donnie McDonouth told the Sarasota City commissioners on Monday, July 16. He’s chairman of Citizens for a Better Sarasota.

The petition-bearers focused on the parking lots of grocery stores and public buildings. Everyone with whom this reporter spoke said he or she was paid per signature, with three saying they were getting $2 apiece. Political junkies take note: It takes $6,600 to get a petition on the ballot in the city.

McDonouth appeared Monday with Argus Foundation President Mike Quillen and Argus Executive Director Kerry Kirschner to ask the city commissioners formally to put the referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot. City Commissioner Terry Turner admits to having helped fund the petition drive.

McDonouth said the measure “eliminates the conflict of interest inherent in the current structures combining audit and administrative functions. It also consolidates administrative functions under the city manager to facilitate accountability and efficient delivery of city services.”

Further, it diminishes or even demolishes the standing of the current auditor and clerk, transferring away two responsibilities of the office (public information and information technology) and separating the “clerk” and “audit” functions by putting the “clerk” function under the city manager.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, civil rights champion Ed James said, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. This duck’s sole purpose is to take out the city auditor and clerk.”

Two days later, City Commission candidate Richard Dorfman also addressed the commission during public comments: “Something doesn’t feel right to me in this city when an elected official can use his own money to affect the political process in the city. To hire mercenaries to collect signatures under false pretenses.”

Dorfman spoke on Wednesday, July 18, following the City Commission budget workshop. He is running for one of the at-large seats now held by Turner and Mayor Suzanne Atwell. That election is in March 2013.

Strong mayor plan rebuffed

Further complicating matters, the same night the commission put the “strong manager” initiative on the ballot, it sidestepped a plan by Commissioner Paul Carragiulo to put another “strong mayor” issue on the November ballot.

Carragiulo wanted the commission to endorse the strong-mayor charter question so voters could decide on it this fall, during the presidential election. His plan called for an extensive rewrite of the city’s charter; it spanned 35 pages, with red-lined text and underscores.

The plan was halted in its tracks by Turner, who moved the issue be tabled until next month. His objection? Agenda items are turned in on Wednesdays; Carragiulo’s was not submitted to the commissioners until two hours before the Monday meeting.

“I cannot possibly make an informed decision on 36 pages I received two hours before the meeting. I need some time to read the document. And the citizens need time to read the document,” Turner said. “I think this whole discussion is inappropriate to good government and good process.”

His motion to table the discussion until Aug. 20 passed 3-2, with Carragiulo and Atwell in the minority.

Ian Black, a downtown realtor, was outraged. “I sat in the audience four-and-a-half hours, waiting to speak,” he said July 18. “I spend every day selling Sarasota. If I was to tell my clients how dysfunctional some of our meetings are, they’d be running a mile.”

If the “strong mayor” proposal is sent to the voters, they will see it on the city’s March 2013 ballot alongside the list of candidates for the two at-large commissions seats. Thus, the “strong mayor” proposal would be voted on during a city-only election, not during a November presidential election.