Supermajority votes should be necessary to remove any of City of Sarasota Charter officials, Charter Review Committee members agree

Qualifications of city manager also debated

The Charter Review Committee members sit in session on Oct. 25. News Leader image

The City of Sarasota’s Charter Review Committee members have voted unanimously to recommend to the City Commission that the removal of any of the three Charter officials — the city manager, the city auditor and clerk, and the city attorney — be done only by a supermajority vote.

In other words, it would take four of five city commissioners to fire one of those three officials.

The Oct. 25 discussion came as the committee members were reviewing the sections of the City Charter that pertain to the appointment and responsibilities of the Charter officials.

Member Peter Fanning brought up the fact that Section V of the Charter requires a vote of only three city commissioners to remove the city manager. Yet, it takes a supermajority to hire a new manager.

The necessity of a supermajority vote has been included in other areas of the Charter, Fanning noted.

“I was going to say the same thing,” Chair Carolyn Mason responded. “That’s a good point, Mr. Fanning.”

“It’s a serious responsibility,” Fanning continued. “And [a firing] should be upheld by the record, and if it’s upheld by the record, I think you probably could entertain a supermajority vote.”

“I agree with that,” committee member Kim Githler said. “It is a very serious action to take, and it should be the majority [taking it].”

Committee member Philip DiMaria also agreed. “There’s something to be said about continuity from commission to commission,” he pointed out, “and there are instances in which three new commissioners could come to the table [and vote out the manager].”

Chair Carolyn Mason. News Leader image

When Mason asked City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs whether the committee members could recommend the change to the Charter by consensus, Griggs said her preference would be a formal vote.

Fanning made the motion, calling for the amended language to say that the city manager could be removed “upon the affirmative vote of four members of the City Commission.” Githler seconded it, and it passed unanimously.

(Committee Vice Chair Eileen Normile and members Cathy Antunes, Dan Clermont and Jeff Jackson were absent from the Oct. 25 meeting. In fact, Mason delayed the start of the session for about 10 minutes, as she waited to see whether she would have a quorum.)

Later, also upon unanimous votes, the committee members approved amendments to the Charter calling for supermajority votes to remove the city auditor and clerk and the city attorney, as well.

Committee member Crystal Bailey raised the issue in regard to the city auditor and clerk, and Githler immediately concurred with the need to discuss it.

“I think it is a protection we need to put in there,” Fanning said.

Bailey made the motion, and Githler seconded it.

In regard to the supermajority vote on removing the city attorney, Githler made the motion, and Fanning seconded it.

“I think the three positions sitting in front of us do an amazing job,” Githler said of City Manager Marlon Brown, Griggs and City Attorney Robert Fournier, “and I think it’s very important to keep the consistency. So my vote is that it should always be a supermajority.”

(From left) City Attorney Robert Fournier, City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs and City Manager Marlon Brown sit across from the dais on Oct. 25. News Leader image

Debate over appointment of acting Charter officials

Earlier during the discussion that night, the committee members focused on language in Section 7, Article 5, of the Charter, which says, “The city commission may appoint an acting city manager, an acting city auditor and clerk, and an acting city attorney to exercise temporarily the powers and perform the duties of the city manager, the city auditor and clerk, and a city attorney hired as a permanent employee in the event of death, incapacity, suspension, resignation, termination, or any other long-term absence.”

Fanning called for a modification of that section to ensure that a temporary city manager “should be a city officer or an employee,” instead of someone brought in from the outside.

“I think that there are people within the organization who understand the history of where the city is and can maybe pick up and start running without losing a beat,” he continued.

This is the section of the City Charter to which Charter Review Committee member Peter Fanning was alluding. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

His suggestion, he added, was based on the model city charter that the members were given as a resource for their discussions.

“I think there really needs to be strong emphasis on that as a consideration,” Fanning told his colleagues, “and I’m not sure just how you would write ‘strong consideration’ in there and have any real meaning.”

“Don’t they always have that prerogative, to bring the next acting person in?” committee member Wayne Reuben asked.

Fanning responded that city residents “got very lucky” when then-City Manager Tom Barwin decided to retire last year, and Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown was named to take the position on an acting basis at the outset. “I think that was the appropriate way to do it,” Fanning added.

DiMaria said he did not “feel strongly either way” about changing that section.

Reuben ended up making a motion to leave the section as is, and Bailey seconded it.

“I think that the inherent first look will be internally,” Bailey said, “but I would hate to limit the commission, given unforeseen circumstances that could arise.”

Fanning pointed out that the Charter says the commission can appoint an acting Charter official without consideration of “going into their own organization and promoting persons. … I just look at one of our sister jurisdictions who went to the chair of the School Board and appointed the person as a county administrator. Now, in my opinion,” he continued, that person is “probably doing a good job, but I’m not sure that they were the best selection at hand at the time.”

“That’s a good point,” Mason acknowledged.

When Mason called for the vote on Reuben’s motion to leave the section as it is written, the motion passed 4-2, with Fanning and DiMaria in the minority.

How long can an ‘acting’ Charter official remain in place?

During the discussion, DiMaria asked at one point, “Is there a certain amount of time associated with an acting Charter official?”

“I’m not aware of there being a certain time limit,” Griggs told him.

City Attorney Fournier replied that he could recall only one applicable situation. After City Manager Robert Bartolotta resigned in January 2012, “Terry Lewis was brought in … He limited himself to six months.”

In August 2012, Terry Lewis at his desk on the next-to-last day as interim manager of the City of Sarasota. Photo by Stan Zimmerman for the News Leader

Lewis already had served as interim Sarasota County administrator after then-Administrator Jim Ley resigned in the spring of 2011, following a scandal involving the county’s Procurement Department, when the City Commission asked him to serve as interim city manager. He began that job on Jan. 20, 2012.

However, as The Sarasota News Leader reported, after the city commissioners deliberated for months over the hiring of a new manager and appeared interested in Lewis’ remaining on board indefinitely, Lewis made it clear that he would not stay much longer.

Lewis’ City of Sarasota position finally ended on Aug. 31, 2012, which was City Manager Barwin’s first day at work in Sarasota.

Lewis had served as North Port police chief and then North Port city manager before the County Commission put him in the acting manager’s role

During the Oct. 25 discussion, DiMaria explained that he had asked his question about the timeline for “acting” positions because of language in the Charter. “Could an acting city auditor be in place for six years?” he asked.

Following a burst of laughter, City Auditor and Clerk Griggs replied, “I think that individual may have a problem with that.”

Then DiMaria said, “In general, though, jokes aside, I think [a time limit] makes sense … especially considering the way the city attorney language works. If the city attorney is hired as a permanent employee … there’s an assumption that if they are not a permanent employee, that someone from the same firm — someone who has that institutional knowledge — would be employed as the city attorney, which I think is helpful. I mean, there’s an implied continuance of knowledge and … institutional knowledge associated with each of these [Charter official] roles.”

Chair Mason pointed out, “I believe that the commission, whatever its makeup is, would take all that into consideration. I personally would not like to see that in this Charter.”

She added that the committee members could recommend changes to every line in the document if they wanted to do so, “but we need to keep in mind that the commission has the final say.”

The committee is scheduled to present its report and recommendations to the commission in early March 2022.

Qualifications of the city manager and city attorney

Turning to the very first section of Article V, regarding the appointment of a city manager, Fanning called for adding language about experience. The section says, “The city manager shall be appointed solely on the basis of professional qualifications.”

“I don’t want an MBA out of graduate school coming in necessarily,” Fanning told his colleagues, referring to a person who has just earned a Master of Business Administration degree. “I think experience is sometimes even more valuable than pedigree …”

Charter Review Committee member Crystal Bailey makes a point on Oct. 25. News Leader image

However, Bailey told him that, the way she read the section, she believed experience is a consideration.

“I believe it’s implied,” DiMaria added.

Nonetheless, Fanning said he would feel better if a line about experience could be added to the section. When he made a motion to that effect, it died for lack of a second.

Then Reuben made a motion to leave the section as written. Githler seconded it, and it ended up passing unanimously.

When discussion turned to the section of the Charter regarding the appointment of the city attorney, Fournier pointed out that, unlike the sections dealing with the city manager and the city auditor and clerk, the portion of the Charter regarding the city attorney says nothing about professional qualifications. However, he continued, it does require the attorney to have five years of experience as a member of the Florida Bar, practicing law, “which I do have.”

“I think so,” Griggs added, as the committee members laughed.

“At least he has to be experienced five years,” Fanning pointed out.

Bailey did take the opportunity to ask Fournier whether he, as an individual, was appointed as city attorney, or whether his firm essentially serves as the office of the city attorney.

“I had a similar question,” DiMaria added.

“It’s me,” Fournier replied. “It is the individual appointment of the person.”