To the casual observer, Sarasota’s new mayor, Suzanne Atwell, may not appear to be the most forceful member of the City Commission.
During her first two years in office, she never engaged in public debates with her fellow commissioners, as the other four commissioners did.
And aside from occasionally reading prepared speeches after votes on important or controversial topics, many of her comments were short — either saying it was time to move forward on an issue, agreeing with something a commissioner had said before her turn to speak or heaping praise on a group, individual or event that had done good in the community.
But a reluctance to publicly bicker with colleagues or constituents should not lull one into believing she does not have a passion for her beliefs.
Atwell, who was appointed mayor May 13, has a determination to do what she thinks is best for the city. She doesn’t surrender easily, even when her fellow commissioners suggest she do so.
“I don’t take no for an answer, when I believe in something,” Atwell says.
Perhaps the greatest example of this is her desire to hire a citywide economic-development coordinator.
In each of her two years in office, Atwell asked the commission to back her idea to create that coordinator position to help retain existing businesses, attract new businesses and create new jobs.
No other commissioner endorsed the idea.
But instead of letting it die, she worked behind the scenes.
“I wasn’t going to ask a third time and instead waited for budget time,” she said.
She convinced City Manager Bob Bartolotta to insert $40,000 to help pay the salary of an economic-development manager.
Then she got the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Improvement District to also chip in some money.
On March 29, Randy Welker started his first day on the job as Sarasota’s new economic-development coordinator.
“The city needs (Welker’s) muscle,” she said.
Atwell has also tried for two years to get the city to try a new evaluation process for the city manager. She feels the current process of having each commissioner assign a score of one, two or three to a variety of duties is ineffective.
She would like to hire a professional consultant to perform a more comprehensive assessment of the job.
“This is essentially our chief executive officer,” she said.
As they did for the economic-development post, none of her fellow commissioners supported her request.
Atwell said as mayor she plans a big push on this issue.
One of her other pet projects on which she will concentrate is bringing a sports festival to Payne Park.
“I walk in Payne Park, and I’m the only one there,” she said. “Payne Park needs a shot of adrenaline.”
The sports festival, in which people of all ages would compete in a wide variety of competitive sports, is one way to inject energy into the underutilized city park, she hopes.
The city and the City Commission have developed a reputation that they are not business-friendly.
Business leaders and developers believe many decisions, both on a staff and commission level, have served to dissuade people from investing in Sarasota.
Atwell hopes to change that perception.
“We’re not going to keep throwing up impediments in developing the city,” she said. “(Citizens) sometimes associate a development with the personality of the developer. We can’t throw out the merits of the case with a development. The more development we bring in, it’s only going to help the bottom line when budget time comes.”
The City Commission has listed North Trail redevelopment as one of its top priorities this year, but last month, Atwell was the only commissioner to support Githler Development’s request to place 15 boat slips at its proposed hotel site on Whitaker Bayou.
“We don’t need any other barrier to the development of North Trail,” she said.
Githler development’s Andy Dorr is just one member of the business community who believes Atwell will be good for Sarasota.
“Suzanne has been a good friend to the business community,” he said. “She has shown that she cares about job creation.”
Dorr believes the mayor’s knowledge of how the city administration does its job will help her convince City Hall that helping small businesses and the downtown area will only bring good things to Sarasota.
The City Commission, with three new members sworn-in May 13, may be viewed, at least initially, as more business-friendly and more of a can-do board.
Commissioner Paul Caragiulo is a small-business owner himself. Commissioner Shannon Snyder, a former Sarasota Planning Board member, said during his campaign that the only way to improve Sarasota’s economy is to aggressively court development. And Vice Mayor Terry Turner has opposed anything he views as being detrimental to Sarasota’s businesses, such as downtown parking meters and a small increase to the city’s business tax.
One phrase commission observers would frequently hear the mayor utter during her first two years on the job was, “It’s time to move forward.”
She doesn’t want to talk about an issue ad nauseam, which the last commission developed a reputation for doing.
Paid parking, the mooring field, and Unconditional Surrender are just three issues in which commissioners conducted multiple meetings and held many discussions.
Parking meters, for example, was approved and then delayed at least three different times.
“(Commissioners) tend to defend themselves by continuing to talk (about issues),” she said. “If we keep talking, nothing will get done.”
One area in which Atwell promises to differ from the previous administration is that of taking city staff’s advice.
Staff members have grumbled for the past couple of years that they were asked to use their expertise and education to formulate a plan and recommendation on issues that were brought before the commission, but instead of heeding that expert advice, commissioners would choose their own path.
“We need to respect staff and have trust in them,” Atwell said. “We can micromanage until the cows come home, but the citizens won’t stand for that. I have to have the ability to make policy based on (staff recommendations).”
Becoming mayor is something Atwell strived for since she first ran for office, and she is prepared to embrace that role wholeheartedly.
“I love being a city commissioner,” she said. “I feel I can have more influence. The City Commission is the closest you’ll get to the electorate.”
Lots of laughs
The transition of power May 13 was one of the more lighthearted affairs in City Hall. There were plenty of laughs, mainly courtesy of outgoing Mayor Kelly Kirschner.
â–º Kirschner to his father, Kerry:
“I had the time of my life, when you came to this table, and I could gavel you and have the last word. All young people in the audience: I encourage you to run for office.”
â–º Kirschner introducing Fredd Atkins, who served with his father:
“Having grown up with Commissioner Atkins, when I was in elementary school … ”
â–º Dick Clapp on citizens he wanted to thank:
“The current president of the Downtown Improvement District, (Ernie) Ritz, I don’t think he voted for me, but I really like his focus on downtown. He’s been very good.”
The three outgoing commissioners all had parting words as they bid the commission farewell last week.
“It’s been a real privilege to serve as city commissioner. It’s been a good four years, but it’s time to move on.”
“I bid you all adieu one more time. Don’t make me come back. I have loved the trip. You don’t know how ready I am to leave.”
“I thank all the voters in District 3 who trusted me to serve the past four years.”
Votes and quotes
Police advisory panel
Suzanne Atwell voted against its initial creation in October 2009, but after it issued its final report, she said that she felt it did good work. She was also hesitant to approve a permanent police complaints committee, which fields complaints against officers.
“There should be no slandering,” she said. “Anyone who does should be ruled out of order. The panel should be respectful of how the majority of the police department (is good).”
She voted several times not to accept the donation of the statue, because of copyright lawsuit fears. In January 2010, she complained about how the deadlines for an agreement kept being pushed back.
“When do we end this? I’m tired of this,” she said.
In November 2009, she voted to approve funding for the Baltimore Orioles’ renovation of Ed Smith Stadium.
“It’s about trust,” she said. “I go with this amazing (city) staff and consultants.”
She voted Dec. 6, 2010, to accept changes to the development agreement, which required the city to build a parking garage on State Street. That garage was part of the city’s master plan, before Pineapple Square came into the picture.
“It’s time to move on,” she said. “We as a city need to hold our feet to the fire to live up to our obligations. I’m scare to death of losing the momentum. (Developer) John Simon has breathed life into the city. We can be creative with this parking structure.”
Whitaker Bayou hotel
Atwell’s vote April 18 was the lone vote in favor of a developer’s request to add 15 boat slips to a proposed hotel along Whitaker Bayou.
“We don’t need any other barrier to the development of North Trail,” she said.
Contact Robin Roy at [email protected]robserver.com.