City Manager Tom Barwin’s first day at Sarasota City Hall was Sept. 4.
But, with all the events on Barwin’s calendar and the priorities on his to-do list, it might seem like he has been the city’s CEO for a longer time.
In his short tenure in Sarasota, thus far, Barwin has had many issues on which to focus — ranging from Rosemary revitalization to parking enforcement to a controversy surrounding the police department’s handling of homelessness downtown.
In one of his most important decisions, he hired new Police Chief Bernadette DiPino. The city’s first woman chief took over the department this month. Barwin faces the task of filling several more high-level positions, including utilities, finance and human resources directors.
With Barwin at the helm, DiPino overseeing the police department and the anticipated trio of new hires, it’s a fresh start in some ways.
“Right now I am very excited,” said Sarasota Mayor Suzanne Atwell. “I think it is a new day in Sarasota. A new day at City Hall. We have a new city manager and a new police chief. We made history doing that.”
Atwell referenced a few tumultuous years and the tension at City Hall. The mayor hopes the next year holds the possibility for collaboration and new ideas.
“Because there are a lot of fresh faces around City Hall, there is such an opportunity to make things work more collaboratively,” Atwell said.
In the beginning of the new year, Barwin and other staffers will remain busy going through a stack of resumes.
“Those positions are under the radar screen, but they are important positions,” Barwin said of the finance, human resources and utilities directors. All three new hires will replace outgoing staffers who have years of experience with the city.
“They have big shoes to fill,” Barwin said.
The city has a short list of finance director candidates and plans to fill the utilities post soon. Even though the search for a new police chief was much more publicized, the city has been going through resumes for the finance and utilities positions — posts that are vital in the city’s day-to-day operations.
“We are putting as much effort into those positions as we did with the police chief (search),” Barwin said.
Barwin was still a candidate just a few months ago. In July, Barwin was one of two finalists in Sarasota, with West Palm Beach City Manager Edward “Ed” Mitchell as the other candidate.
Another important post
Anyone who follows the happenings at City Hall will be watching Barwin and DiPino closely to see what changes come with this new season of leadership.
But the position of finance director is another important post, especially in the current economic climate.
“That is a key position with the city,” said Barwin.
Because Florida has a specific property-tax structure and financial guidelines, Barwin said candidates who either currently work for a Florida municipality or who have experience working with a Florida municipality would be a good fit for the position.
Current Finance Director Chris Lyons announced his retirement due to health reasons in September.
Lyons was finance director for the past five years and helped prepare 23 fiscal-year budgets.
Recently, he led efforts to cut city costs and reform pensions. The tough budget years will continue, as property values stabilize.
Filling the open economic development coordinator position, along with other economic development and job-creation efforts, was a top priority for him, Barwin said when hired.
A joint committee represented by the city, Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Improvement District named Norman Gollub as the city’s downtown improvement economic development coordinator Dec. 12.
Barwin would like to see an effort to attract and keep more young professionals in Sarasota.
In the year ahead, Barwin would also like to see redevelopment started in the Rosemary District (click here for story).
He is hopeful that a proposed public-private venture for an arts-themed hotel on Palm Avenue breaks ground soon and brings in additional tourism to the heart of the city.
But the economic picture isn’t the only thing on Barwin’s radar. Sarasota has experienced a few tough years inside City Hall, and as the city’s CEO and boss of more than 500 full-time employees, Barwin has jumped in the fray.
Barwin has been meeting with residents and business leaders. He started a listening committee with police officers. He has moved the city forward in the wake of a controversial investigation and cyber review into allegations of misuse of city emails by former City Manager Robert Bartolotta. State investigators did not seek criminal charges in that computer review.
The new chief brings experience as a police chief and as a community-policing instructor, training more than 1,000 officers. During her 27-year career in law enforcement, DiPino was named Officer of the Year three times and received 18 commendations, including one for disarming a suicidal person and another for her work with the narcotics unit.
DiPino became the first SWAT team officer, first lieutenant and eventually first female police chief in Ocean City, Md.
She is the first woman to lead Sarasota’s police department. Sarasota currently has 23 sworn women officers on a force of 174 total officers.
Just up the road, Tampa’s police department is overseen by Jane Castor, whom Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio appointed chief in 2009.
In Sarasota, DiPino inherits a department that has been surrounded by controversy, following a high-profile investigation into excessive force that resulted in the forced resignation of former Police Chief Peter Abbott. Further budget cuts and changes to the police pension plan are also on the horizon.
David Massey, who as former police chief in Ocean City encouraged DiPino to apply for his post when he retired, said DiPino is up to the challenges in Sarasota.
“She never fails,” Massey said. “I gave her some of the toughest assignments to see how she would handle them, and there wasn’t one that she didn’t do well.”
Massey said DiPino is also experienced with working closely with the business community and neighborhood associations.
Contact Roger Drouin at [email protected].