Terry Lewis, our Hercules, aims again at retirement

One of the 12 labors of Hercules in Greek mythology was the cleaning of the Augean stables. There resided a herd of more than 1,000 immortal cattle. The stable hadn’t been cleaned in more than 30 years.

Using wit instead of brawn, Hercules diverted two rivers to wash out the accumulated filth, and he was well paid for his efforts.

Terry Lewis at his desk on the next-to-last day as interim manager of the City of Sarasota. Photo by Stan Zimmerman

Sarasota’s interim city manager, Terry Lewis, has performed a similar labor not once but three times in Sarasota County over the past two years — first as the interim city manager in North Port, where there was an accumulation to be cleaned; then as the interim Sarasota County manager, where more accumulations were wiped away; and finally as the interim city manager of Sarasota.

Lewis was never a timid caretaker. In each case, senior officials lost lofty jobs. In both North Port and the Sarasota County, the finance directors were replaced. In Sarasota, the utilities director “resigned.”

In all three cases, Lewis took over when the local governments were under a cloud. In October 2010, the North Port city commissioners fired one city manager and asked his deputy to take over, but the deputy quit the job about two weeks later. The commissioners then asked Lewis – the city’s police chief – if he’d take charge until they completed a national search. Lewis declined a pay raise, saying his $128,000 salary as chief was sufficient.

He stayed on until May 2011, when the city named Jonathan Lewis (no relation) as the new city manager. By that point, Terry Lewis was angling to start his retirement and take his wife on a long-promised vacation. But duty called again; another “stable” was in need of cleaning. This time it was Sarasota County Government.

In June 2011, Lewis was picked unanimously to take the place of Jim Ley, who had resigned as county administrator in late May 2011, under a cloud of procurement mismanagement allegations. Lewis asked for $533 a day and a county car.

Lewis then hired Steve Uebelacker to be the ethics and compliance officer for the county, a first for Sarasota County. Lewis stayed in that post for six months while the county conducted a search, finally hiring Randall Reid from Alachua County.

On his final day in the county position, Lewis got a call asking him to be the interim city manager for Sarasota. He took the job for the same $533 per day and a city car, replacing Bob Bartolotta, who had resigned under his own cloud of questions — in this case, regarding the erasure of email on city computers.

In this same two-year period, the two remaining municipalities in the county – Venice and Longboat Key – also replaced their city managers. What was going on?

Lessons learned?

“I think it was a unique set of circumstances,” Lewis said in an interview on his next-to-last day on the city job. “If they had anything in common, it’s all of them went through a recession with a significant workforce reduction. All three had to make difficult decisions.”

“When I first became an interim city manager [in North Port], I started going to the monthly city managers’ meetings at First Watch,” said Lewis. “I looked around one day and realized I was the senior guy.”

Lewis is the first to admit he is primarily a law enforcement professional, a cop who started on the beat in Washington, D.C., and ended it as a colonel at the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. After retiring from the SSO, he became the bureau chief for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in Tallahassee; then, he took the job as North Port’s chief. He has no training in public administration.

“Frankly, I considered going from police chief to city manager as a demotion,” he said.

“I think the most difficult job in local government is strategic planning,” said Lewis. “Commissions change. Think about the parking meters downtown, or sidewalk dining, or plans for the North [Tamiami] Trail,” he said. “It’s very, very hard and I don’t know how to do it. It’s complicated. Sewer-rate studies, land-use decisions, economic development — maybe if I knew more, I’d have more confidence.”

Throughout his unexpected second career as the top public manager in back-to-back stints for one county and two cities, Lewis maintained all he could do was let the professionals do their best and stay out of their way.

“There’s a real sense of pride among public employees; you can almost touch it,” he said. “I’ve worked at a lot of organizations with great histories, but none with the pride I’ve seen in the City of Sarasota.”

Where is our local Hercules bound? “I’m going to North Carolina next week to use my chainsaw,” he said. “And next month, my wife and I are going to Tahiti.”