At times like this, you want to reach out to Mayor Suzanne Atwell and now former City Manager Bob Bartolotta. To console and encourage them.
The past week, to be sure, was full of a lot of emotion and painful decision making. You can imagine their knotted stomachs, the weight, the heartaches and restless nights.
Mayor Atwell showed courage and leadership. She made the difficult decision, concluding that it would be best for everyone that Bartolotta resign. Best for the city, the commission, taxpayers, for Bartolotta himself.
If you see Atwell, tell her she did the right thing, to stay strong. If you see Bartolotta, tell him: “Sorry, it didn’t work out. Remember your successes. You’ll bounce back.”
Bartolotta had successes. He did what he was known for doing. He made tough decisions, popularity be damned. Give him credit for that. He wasn’t an empty-suit manager hoping to be liked by everyone.
He confronted some tough challenges with choices that hurt some and irritated others but that helped balance the city’s budget. He cut expenses and city jobs in the face of a severe recession; imposed higher parking fees to cut the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center’s annual subsidy; charged park users and event organizers for the use of city police and resources.
And he faced some sticky issues — the controversy that led to the replacement of former Police Chief Peter Abbott; downtown parking meters; and the police union’s pensions.
To an extent, you could say Bartolotta was akin to the proverbial corporate “hatchet man” who is brought in to turn around a struggling, bloated company. It’s always a short-term tenure, with the hatchet man eventually walking out, blood on his axe, no friends but the job done.
Much of what led to Bartolotta’s resignation can be attributed to choices and actions of his own making, as well as his general disposition. City Hall, in general, seemed insular and inner-focused under Bartolotta. He and the city’s business interests never clicked, an essential ingredient for any city manager to succeed.
There wasn’t a fit. Sometimes people and personalities just don’t mesh. It’s called life.
Question the structure
This is an opportune time to assess the entire picture. Mayor Atwell and her fellow commissioners should not rush to fill the slot. Don’t do what commissions always do — hire a consultant to conduct a search.
The results are too often disappointing. They’re like presidential elections. You end up hiring a candidate who is the least worst, because you feel you have to fill the position. You settle.
Don’t rush. Don’t settle. Instead, answer important questions: Does the city have the right governmental and organizational structures to foster success and greatness? Is the manager-commission, weak-mayor form of government the best governmental and organizational structures to take Sarasota to new heights over the next 80 years?
Sarasota’s history is a good place to start to answer those questions.
It’s worth noting that five of the city’s seven managers (and four of the past five) were forced to resign, ultimately because the weight of their miscues and missteps led to a loss of confidence among city commissioners.
What’s more, over the past quarter-century we’ve seen the rise of the professional technocrat-bureacrat manager who is good at the governmental protocols of budgeting; implementing state and federal mandates; executing the day-to-day activities of a city; and implementing commission policy.
But when it comes to the other qualifications of being a dynamic, visionary leader able to motivate people to climb to the mountaintop, often times those qualities are in shorter supply, sometimes missing altogether. And if truth be told, elected politicians often don’t want that type of city manager; they don’t want him stealing and hogging the limelight. And likewise, the smart city manager who wants to keep his job knows he shouldn’t upstage his bosses. Lie low.
Thus, this structure — the manager-commission, weak-mayor form of government — breeds leaderless bureaucracy and mediocrity. The city of Sarasota is Illustration No. 1.
Structure breeds distrust
Another part of the city’s governmental and organizational structures makes things worse. It acts as a cancer cell that constantly grows. That is the appointed city auditor-clerk, who is on the same level as the manager with the commission.
This structure breeds inevitable and unavoidable conflict.
The argument in favor of a clerk-auditor who reports to the commission and not to the manager is a good one: checks and balances, to limit the manager’s control. An independent auditor also keeps the manager from becoming corrupt, or eventually catches him when he is.
But at the same time, this structure breeds distrust and destruction. Look at the ugly conflict between Bartolotta and City Auditor Pamela Nadalini. It created a Kremlin-like environment at City Hall, with everyone suspicious of the other and, apparently, surreptitiously combing through emails. Forward progress stops.
Even former Mayor Kerry Kirschner recently recalled for us the conflict more than a decade ago that existed between former City Manager David Sollenberger and City Auditor Bob McClellan. Sollenberger nixed from the budget McClellan’s request for a new desk chair. One day when Kirschner walked through the lobby of City Hall, McClellan opened his office door and kicked his desk chair into the lobby, followed by some choice words about Sollenberger.
Is this structure worth the consequences?
As we all know, for any enterprise or organization to succeed, you must have at least these two ingredients:
• A dynamic leader who wins the respect of his co-workers and those around him. A dynamic leader who has vision and can get things done.
• Teamwork. There must be a culture where everyone knows the mission, the vision, the values and the expectations. And if you elect to be a member of this enterprise or organization, either you buy in to this culture, or you go.
Another part of that culture of teamwork is trust. Without it, there is disruption and destruction, i.e., Sarasota City Hall.
Consider alternative models
We have often said the city of Sarasota has succeeded in spite of its political leadership. This lack of leadership — which is a direct result of the form of government — explains why there have been two efforts in the past decade to consider switching to an elected-mayor form of government.
If today’s commissioners step back from the immediate urge to search to replace Bartolotta and look at the bigger picture, surely they will see the history of the city’s governmental and organizational structures raises questions about their effectiveness. There is ample reason for them to consider alternatives. Look around. What makes the best cities the best cities?
Fortunately, there is not an overwhelming crisis to rush to fill Bartolotta’s slot. Terry Lewis, the region’s highly respected, interim emergency manager-administrator, is willing to steer the city temporarily. Sign him up.
Meantime, if the city of Sarasota is to become what it could become — a great(er) city, an economically vibrant and even more attractive place to live — it should seem obvious to Mayor Atwell and her colleagues that a new model is needed. A model that brings definitive, strong leadership to a place that deserves it.
+ Culverhouse’s last laugh
It’s a wonder it took 12 years for Palmer Ranch owner Hugh Culverhouse Jr. to sue Sarasota County over its 2050 anti-growth plan. But when it comes to litigation, Culverhouse has a reputation for making sure his legal petitions are airtight.
He learned that as a former federal prosecutor in Miami.
When you read his federal complaint — alleging the county violated his Fifth and 14th Amendment rights (just compensation for a taking and equal protection) — the facts appear in his favor.
As we frequently wrote in 2000, when the County Commission constructed this convoluted monstrosity, it was quite evident the commissioners inserted so many stipulations that the plan would do what they wanted — stop suburban residential development.
Our bet: Culverhouse will have the last laugh — at Sarasota County taxpayers’ expense. He’ll win millions from the county and a federal court will do what should have been done a decade ago: Throw 2050 where it belongs — in the junk yard.