For years, Sarasota City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell criticized the process by which the commission evaluates its charter officials, particularly the city manager.
Commissioners rate the city manager, city attorney and city auditor and clerk in several categories on a numeric scale that corresponds to “below expectations,” “meets expectations” and “exceeds expectations.” For five years, Atwell has pushed for evaluation proceedings that encouraged more of a dialogue between commissioners and officials.
“I think, historically, our evaluation process seemed to me to be kind of metric-oriented, quantitatively oriented, rather than perhaps more qualitatively oriented,” Atwell said. “That’s what I wanted all these years, to have a facilitator come in who can bring in objectivity.”
This year, Atwell will get her wish when it comes time to evaluate City Manager Tom Barwin. A provision in Barwin’s contract stipulates a third-party specialist must be brought in to help facilitate the evaluation process; one must be identified before the commission can evaluate the city manager for the first time since he took office in September 2012.
“The basic requirement for my evaluation is to utilize an outside specialist to strive to make the process a constructive, positive and team-building exercise,” Barwin said in an Oct. 28 email to Commissioner Paul Caragiulo.
Caragiulo had inquired about the schedule of charter official evaluations in an email earlier that day. Caragiulo recently criticized the city manager for his handling of the state Sunshine Law. In an interview with the Sarasota Observer just more than an hour before sending the email about evaluations, Caragiulo suggested Barwin’s persisting Sunshine issues could be grounds for dismissal.
“We’ll end up paying three times the amount in lawsuits that we’re paying him,” Caragiulo said. “He is not getting it.”
Still, Atwell believes the new process will be devoid of the contentiousness that plagued previous discussions and allow for more constructive criticism and dealing less with personal issues.
She said what the city manager does outside of City Hall is a crucial part of the job, but internal minutia frequently bogged down previous commissions.
“In the past, it was just too insulated for me,” Atwell said. “Yes, there are a lot of things you need to do internally, but reaching out into the community is something that Sarasota demands.”
Mayor Shannon Snyder was less enthusiastic about the new process. He criticized the lack of direct feedback the city manager would get from commissioners.
“I think he ends up with a buffer,” Snyder said. “This way, he speaks with an intermediate who soft sells the issues instead of having the face-to-face evaluation.”
Snyder, an outspoken critic of Barwin, questioned the relevance of the evaluation process. Although he has several areas where he’d like to see Barwin adjust his managerial style, Snyder doesn’t believe his criticism would have an effect.
“When people reach a certain age, I don’t think they’re going to change,” Snyder said.
Rather than hold formal meetings to gauge the commission’s mood, Snyder said the city manager should constantly be in communication with commissioners, and make adjustments accordingly.
Still, Snyder briefly summed up his assessment of Barwin’s first 14 months in office. “‘Unimpressed’ would be the politest term,” Snyder said.
Commissioner Susan Chapman is concerned about conducting evaluations in the wake of an ongoing Sunshine lawsuit against the city, which she believes has implications for all three charter officials.
“I don’t think that I can be deposing people in defending my case and evaluating them at the same time,” Chapman said. “I think that will be unfair to everyone.”
At a Nov. 1 commission meeting, city staff identified a potential mediator in Larry Ross, a business professor at Florida Southern College who has facilitated evaluations of Polk County officials. If selected, Ross would meet with commissioners individually to get their evaluations before publicly presenting a report.
Chapman, however, believes there should be no rush to begin the evaluation process as long as the litigation remains unsettled, or else the lawsuit might have an undue impact on the proceedings.
“I think there are some people who have very negative agendas who have gotten in the middle of this,” Chapman said. “We need to have cooler heads prevail and recognize that you should not do these sorts of things in crisis mode.”
Chapman also joined Snyder in questioning the amount of time devoted to evaluating the charter officials.
“Most citizens do not want us to spend all our time on this sort of stuff,” Chapman said. “They want to have toilets that flush, adequate stormwater — they want their problems that government is good at solving solved.”
Contact David Conway at [email protected]