Although two community activist organizations and a well-known Sarasota attorney have questioned the schedule, the majority of the Sarasota County commissioners this week told the Pelican Press they felt confident about the timeline for selecting a replacement for former County Administrator Jim Ley.
In email exchanges with the commission and county staff in the past week, Citizens for Responsible Government and attorney Dan Lobeck expressed concern that the schedule the commissioners approved is too compressed to allow sufficient opportunity for the best candidates to come forward.
Additionally, in her organization’s October newsletter, Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations President Ann Kaplan wrote a column saying the hiring of the new administrator “is a decision that should not be rushed but very carefully considered and thoroughly vetted to make sure we get our (government) back on the right track in terms of efficiency, public trust, transparency, ethics and making service of the public sector the No. 1 priority.”
Cathy Antunes, spokeswoman for Citizens for Responsible Government, told the Pelican Press Monday that the selection of the new administrator “is too important to be expedited.”
The deadline for candidate applications is Oct. 21, which the commissioners approved in late September by a 4-1 vote. The board’s consultant in the process, The Mercer Group, had proposed Oct. 28 as the cutoff date. Chairwoman Nora Patterson cast the lone dissenting vote. She told the Pelican Press she, too, was worried the timeline was too short.
However, Commissioners Joe Barbetta and Christine Robinson said this week they felt the deadline allowed plenty of time for good candidates to send in their applications.
“We’d rather have an extra week on the interview end,” Barbetta said of the board.
In an Oct. 11 email to the commissioners, Lobeck wrote, “I have been told that it seems to be the board’s consensus to see who you get from this expedited review,” and if the commissioners do not like any of the candidates, they will send The Mercer Group “back for more work.” Lobeck concluded, “It is far more important that this critical decision be made right rather than it be made quickly.”
Commissioners Carolyn Mason, Jon Thaxton and Robinson all told the Pelican Press this week that if they were not happy with the applications that came in, they would ask The Mercer Group to seek more.
“If I don’t like what I see, I’m not going to force myself into making a decision on what might have been a flawed selection process,” Thaxton said, noting that he did have some concerns “about the shortened, dare I say, hastened, timeframe.”
“We’re not going to please everybody,” Mason said. “I think the commission is doing the absolute best it can do.”
Mason, Robinson and Thaxton also said the county needs to find a replacement soon for Ley, who resigned May 24 in the wake of the Procurement Department scandal. “I think we need to get somebody in this position and move on,” Robinson said.
Noting that Interim Administrator Terry Lewis has offered to stay beyond the Dec. 14 expiration of his contract, Thaxton said that although Lewis “is doing a great job … it’s still transition, and transition, by its very definition, is unsettling, and it’s very important that we get settled and move on.”
Antunes told the Pelican Press her group also was concerned that the four focus groups the county conducted in September to aid in the administrator search had not included a broad enough mix of community residents. She pointed out that the current commissioners had been accused at various times of “favoring certain special interests.” The invitations they sent out to people to attend the focus groups reflected that, she said. “You need to invite those who are … critical as well.”
Additionally, she questioned whether the county publicized the meetings adequately, to ensure broad attendance.
“Short of smoke signals,” Robinson said, “I don’t know what else we could have done,” adding that the county sent out press releases, the commissioners discussed the upcoming sessions during their regular meetings and the county publicized the sessions in its e-newsletter.
The Sarasota County Commission has confirmed the arrangements and timeline for public meetings and interviews with candidates for county administrator.
• Nov. 2: The commission will receive from its consultant, The Mercer Group, the applications from the top 15 candidates.
• Nov. 8: The commission will review the applications and select three to five candidates to come to Sarasota for public meetings and interviews.
• Nov. 13: The first “meet-and-greet” public meeting will be held at 4 p.m. at the Venice Community Center, 326 S. Nokomis Ave., Venice. Each candidate will be given an opportunity to talk about his experience; a 45-minute question-and-answer session with the public will follow. Then the candidates and the public will have about an hour to socialize.
• Nov. 14: The commissioners will have the opportunity to meet the candidates one-on-one. Then, the second “meet-and-greet” session will be held at 6 p.m. at the Potter Building at Robarts Arena, 3000 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota. The format will be the same as the Nov. 13 session.
• Nov. 15: The commissioners will conduct public interviews with the candidates between 12:30 and 5:30 p.m. Following the interviews, the commissioners will rank the candidates and decide whether to make an offer to one of them