Tom Barwin began his second week on the job as city manager with the stack of papers beginning to grow — albeit neatly — on his desk at City Hall. Thus far, he’s met with about 300 residents and city employees.
Barwin faces some massive challenges over the next few months. The Sarasota Observer spoke to neighborhood and business leaders about what they felt were the most pressing of those challenges. The issues are nuanced, and the solutions even more complex. The city manager plays a pivotal role in future changes throughout the city, yet he is only one part in a plethora of moving parts — a process of governance in which he implements policies set by the elected board of city commissioners and the residents they represent.
The neighborhood and business leaders interviewed for this article offered their suggestions on top issues on which they would like to see Barwin and the city spend energy, time and funding.
Of those interviewed, nearly half, including both resident advocates and merchants, mentioned issues involving crime and the police department. The most immediate challenge was to name an effective new police chief. Leaders also want Barwin to focus on, correcting low morale among officers and strategies to combat problems associated with increased homelessness.
Some who were interviewed spoke about the need to heal the growing political divide that has cast a shadow of in-fighting, negativity and inaction on city governance over the past several years.
Other issues included: redevelopment of a vacant property in Newtown; balancing the city’s budget; and bridging some of the differences between commercial interests and neighborhoods.
We asked seven neighborhood and business advocates what the challenges are for new City Manager Tom Barwin. “This is a tall order,” says former Mayor Richard Martin of one of the issues. Barwin gave his response to each concern.
President of Harshman & Company, downtown commercial real-estate broker:
“The clean and safe initiative the City Commission is working on now. That’s a No. 1 issue downtown they are addressing. If we have a clean and safe environment downtown, combined with all the other positive attributes of Sarasota, that would be really attractive for retail, restaurants and residential. The three Rs.”
“I think he has nailed it. If you are clean and safe, with all the other natural amenities Sarasota has, that bodes well for everyone. The good news is that the police department has stepped up its efforts to deal with vagrants who are impacting some of our businesses negatively. That’s a good insight by him, and I will be learning all the specifics of this program. If the community is safe and clean, people are comfortable, investments will follow and more jobs are created.”
Downtown advocate and former City Commission candidate:
“What I suggest to him is the need to heal the rift with the rank-and-file police. These men and women have lost a lot of their benefits and spent the last three years listening to a conversation by the administration that has been really negative — making it seem like they are nothing more than strain on the pocketbook. One thing Tom Barwin can do is change the tone the administration takes with the police department. We need them (police officers), and we need to let them know we have their backs.”
“I will be setting up listening sessions with the (police) commanders, supervisors and officers. That will be a start. Having been a police officer, I know what every one of those men and women goes through every day. It’s serious business. We need to give them the tools, support and recognition they need to be successful. We need to work at it as a team — everyday. Certainly that’s what I intend to do.
“As far as the pensions, I hope the officers realize this: There is going to be some angst, but cities and counties, and even the private sector, also are facing this. It’s a situation that has been created by several factors outside our control. The key is to work toward sustainability for everyone’s planning, from the individuals in the pension system and their families, to the taxpayers. To get that onto a foundation where it is sustainable.”
Chairman of the Downtown Improvement District:
“The biggest issue is balancing the budget while keeping the police and fire department people happy. Really, the only way to balance the budget is to look at the police and fire departments, and that is not an easy thing. If you look at the chart, more than 50% of the budget is the police department. The city can’t be operating like the federal budget.”
“We have no choice but to work our way through these fiscal issues. Although I remain hopeful the economy will improve, that will certainly help things. But we have to live within our means. Even in my short time here, the city has been working to get out ahead of the fiscal crisis and make the hard choices early on. We’ve already had a meeting on the pensions.
“Ultimately, what the employees and the unions have to understand, and do understand — I think — is that everyone lives somewhere and pays taxes, and all of this has to be calibrated to be responsive to the community. People need to be able to live here. Without residents and tax-paying identities, there is no revenue to pay payrolls.
“The word I would use (for the police department) is effective. Through crime-analysis technology, and through citizen partnerships, the department can become more effective and improve on its efforts. We can do as well, or better, without increasing resources; working smarter using the tools now available.”
Former Sarasota mayor and director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness:
“The credibility of city government is at a low point. Frankly, it seems dysfunctional at this point. There is a lot of disappointment from people who love this community. Over the past three years, really, a lot of trust has been challenged and lost. The biggest challenge is to restore a sense of credibility in local government ... soothing feathers, creating a more functional environment. This is a tall order. It’s been such a tough time, locally and nationally, that people have gotten irascible. I don’t know what is going on with the commission chemistry, for instance. But this manager will have to manage a crisis. We need the kind of leadership to show there is a positive future out there. From what I am hearing, if there is someone who can do that, he is a good choice.”
“Two things strike me as a new city manager with a fresh set of eyes, especially from out of state. What’s happening here is happening all over the country. The great recession has necessitated a lot of change in government, a lot of cuts and a lot of community angst over the process of arriving at those cuts. We are in a community where 25% of the workforce has been reduced. I know many managers around the country, and we are in a parallel situation.
“But I am hopeful it’s a new day. It will take a while, and it should take a while, to develop confidence in the manager’s office. As this occurs, and as I learn every nuance of this community, decision-making at the commission level will become more routine. If I, as manager, and the city staff do our homework, by the time issues get to board level, hopefully in most cases, what’s presented will represent a solid, commonsense approach and a consensus among the board and community. That doesn’t mean we won’t have tough decisions. People here are not afraid to share their passions with commissioners and fellow citizens. But, as a city manager who has worked in some tough settings, I would much rather have the challenges that reflect people and their passions to make a great community versus what we see in so many communities — disinterest, neglect, lack of concern.”
Chairman of CCNA:
“He needs the backing of the City Commission. The continuity of city managers has been an issue. For some reason, we can’t seem to keep them. We can’t have a city manager with half a deck of cards stacked against him. What Tom Barwin can do is be effective. And if he runs the city effectively, and manages the financial aspects as well as other departments, that would be the start of his success. If he is effective, the City Commission will gravitate toward the city manager. You want support from your bosses when you do your job, and he needs that.”
“You have had some tenured city managers — Ken Thompson was here for 38 years, and David Sollenberger for 14 years. I prefer to think we have been through an unusual period, and this is more the norm. I spent a long time talking to David Sollenberger the other day trying to identify his keys to success here. Sarasota did a lot of things right, and the community reflects that today. Our job is to quietly and effectively run the city as efficiently as possible.
“When sailing on choppy seas, if you look at the waves hitting the boat, chances are pretty good you will get seasick. You have to be cognizant of the waves, but fix your gaze to the horizon ... You will get there if know where you are trying to go. That gets down to the nuts and bolts of what we do: knowing fiscal projections five and 10 years out; knowing how many jobs we need to create in the next 10 years as a community if we can; knowing what our goals are to reduce crime; knowing what goals are and setting a course on that destination. That’s strategic thinking, and this office’s role is to facilitate that as much as possible at board (City Commission) level and implement with our hand on the tiller.”
President of the Sarasota Housing Authority Agency Wide Residence Counsel and Newtown resident:
“I think it says a lot to me if he just tries to do what is right rather than to just go along with the program. Nobody wants to put money up here. Redevelopment needs to happen. How do you want people to stop selling drugs if there are no jobs? Let’s do the right thing and do it together. Over there where a Walmart was supposed to go (U.S. 301 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way) we need something there, something where people can go to work and earn an honest day’s living. They need to clean that site up that was used for a dump. They are spending money for a roundabout on every other street but they can’t clean that site up.
“It’s been dormant for a long time. I think we can find something better than a Walmart to come in there.”
“It’s frustrating and difficult to believe we haven’t figured out how to bring more employment and job opportunities to some of America’s struggling communities. The truth is that so often those communities are minority communities. That is one of the reasons I got into this career, to try and help those situations. The struggle to earn an income and have a middle-class lifestyle is beyond frustrating, to the point where for some — not all, but some — they end up falling into the trap of substance abuse and, too often, a life of crime to fund a drug habit.
“I think it should be a national issue, with the funding issue to work through it. But it hasn’t been, so we, at the local level, have to work harder to be more creative and more innovative to do everything we can to overcome those challenges. I look forward to partnering with the Newtown community and being brought up to speed on that 14-acre site and its status and hearing ideas on what they envision. It certainly is a golden opportunity. I hope to do so in the next week or two.”
Neighborhood activist and Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores resident:
“We are a divided country now, and we are a divided city. It’s important that he can bring the business community and neighborhoods together. The more open and communicative the administration is, the more likely he will be able to bring people together. My husband and I took a short side trip when we were up in that area and went and looked at this particular parking garage project in Oak Park. The community seemed to rally together for that project. That takes a lot of work among the City Commission and manager to make that happen. If he was able to be part of working with both the development community and a historic neighborhood to have a parking garage that was acceptable and compatible (in Oak Park, Ill.), my feeling is that was part of a team effort.”
“I’m impressed she took it upon herself to visit my former community. She is spot on. The only way we were able to get that project approved was to have collaboration between the residential community and the developer.
“It was my opinion that the developer shouldn’t even submit plans until they spoke to the neighborhood. That project was right up against the edge of the Frank Lloyd Wright historic community, a neighborhood inhabited by architects, university professors and lawyers, all passionate about their neighborhood. The role of the manager’s office was to understand concerns and facilitate a dialogue that got us to our destination. An architectural adviser for the city reviewed plans when they were submitted. The plans changed in the process, and what we ended up with was elegant and attractive and aesthetically pleasing, resulting in a better development. That conversation resulted in a $81 million mixed-use project with a public-private partnership for a 350-space parking garage, 25,000 square feet of retail and 277 apartments.”