Talk about fiddling while Rome burns. The city of Sarasota is facing a series of crises threatening to escalate further.
The city has no manager, but city commissioners can’t agree on a new one. Last week, commissioners rejected all three finalists. One could not get a super majority of four out of five commissioners, and the other two were considered to have too much baggage — there were “controversies” in their past.
Now, anyone who has been involved in running governments for decades is bound to have controversy. Presumably, if he makes it to finalist, those are not major. And if a leader has absolutely no controversies in his past, he probably hasn’t led anywhere worth following.
In the wake of its interim city manager stepping down, the commission is now trying to backtrack and snag one of the three it booted.
It’s more than embarrassing. It’s bad.
The city is an emasculated mayor form of government, which means it is led by committee when it comes to elected officials. Anyone involved in decisions by committee knows what the results usually look like. Think Congress — without a president.
There is also a turf battle going on between Sarasota City Auditor and Clerk Pamela Nadalini and the empty city manager’s office, pointing to further problems in the city’s structure. Co-presidents, co-CEOs, co-leaders, co-quarterbacks just rarely work. And when the co-leaders answer independently to a commission of equals, messes are inevitable.
Further, the city is facing an employee pension bomb that is blowing up the budget and could get much worse. But it lacks the leadership to make substantive changes. The move toward $1 million in savings by tweaking the contracts is a modest start, and one that may be legally challenged by the Police Benevolent Association, which hotly opposes changes to the pension system.
To be sure, the candidates for city manager were not wholly impressive. But there is no reason to think a second round will be anything but worse given the results of the first round.
This is the perfect opportunity for city leaders to be bold and look to a new kind of leadership — a strong mayor, strong manager, something. Because Sarasota undoubtedly must be one of the best, badly run cities in the country, living off a blessing of natural assets and some good decisions from earlier city leaders. Who thought we would pine for the days of City Manager David Sollenberger?
The truth is that a commission of five equals and rotating city managers keeping the seat warm for a couple of years while an independent clerk plots for power is a disastrous recipe for Sarasota going into the future.
But, alas, that is not the thinking among the five one-fifth mayors on the commission — or at least not among enough of them.
What is the thinking among commissioners? … Political correctness.
They are planning to add a registry to expand benefits to unmarried couples. This is not really about giving rights to people who are living together. This is all about gay rights.
There are few, more powerful special interests representing small constituencies than the gay lobby, nationally and locally. The idea that they are a persecuted minority, such as blacks once were, is preposterous on the face of it. They are probably the wealthiest and most influential small constituency in the country — largely upper-middle-class white males.
Nonetheless, with the other major issues pressing all around, the City Commission is happily looking to make sure those employees are covered.
How many are we looking at for this urgent problem? The city has about 700 employees. The gay population is about 3%. So that means the city has maybe 20 gay employees. Of those, only a fraction have long-term live-in partners, probably less than half. Where are we sitting — maybe at five to 10 employees?
Why? Everybody else is doing it!
However, by opening this door, it also opens up the benefits to the straight live-in couples. The percentage of those is much, much higher, and there is no reason to extend them benefits. They can just get married and have full benefits.
This direction will raise the city’s benefit costs when they are already unaffordable and further encourage destructive behavior.
This is where the city is right now. Unable to deal effectively with the largest issues, but willing to tackle small issues that might carry political goodies at the broader expense.
On this, they appear to find unanimity.
Rod Thomson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.