Integrity, a willingness to listen to and collaborate with others and a desire not to be “the sixth commissioner” were among the top traits listed last week for the person who will become Sarasota County’s new administrator.
Experience with governments and business in Florida also was a much-valued résumé bullet point.
The average attendance at five focus group sessions hosted last week by John T. Maxwell of the Mercer Group Inc., which is conducting the search for former County Administrator Jim Ley’s replacement, was 25 people. Maxwell said the first session, held at Selby Public Library, drew the largest group, 35; the last, at the North Sarasota Library in Newtown, drew the least, 17. Sessions also were conducted at Phillippi Estate Park and in Venice and North Port.
Maxwell said he hoped to have a report ready by early next week that will reflect the public comments. His firm will recruit candidates based on the comments, he said.
“We go after the people who meet the criteria that’s been established,” he said.
Maxwell anticipated submitting candidates to the commission within 90 to 120 days.
“They want this done tomorrow,” he said.
Niki McBride came prepared with a written statement when she arrived Sept. 8 at the Edson Keith Mansion; many of those seated with her at the table offering an “amen” chorus when she concluded.
The county needs a new administrator “who is absolutely neutral politically … and should not be making policy,” McBride said. “(He or she should have) strong staff relations across the board … with a record of open and successful communications … which has been missing for more than a decade here.
“We do not need an administrator to rule by fear,” she said. “This government has lost very good and capable people.”
Virginia Haley, president of the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the county over the past five years had experienced the creation “of the worst polarized workforce I’ve ever seen.”
“I’d like to see a county administrator with a demonstrated strength of character,” Bob Waechter, a Siesta Key Association board member, told Maxwell. Furthermore, Waechter said, the person should understand his role is to implement policy set by the commission.
Kerry Kirschner, executive director of The Argus Foundation and former Sarasota mayor, said the county needs “a strong administrator and not a sixth commissioner.”
“One of the biggest issues in this county right now is one of ethics and corruption,” David Schwab said. “The person coming into the job is going to be pressured by a lot of special interest groups (so a strong sense of ethics will be vital).”
Cathy Antunes, a member of a citizens group that brought suit against the county over the recruitment of the Baltimore Orioles to the community, said, “I think we’re here primarily because the ethics of our county administrator and the administration have been found (to be) a failure … People who were honest were actually booted out by the old county administrator, which is an unacceptable, horrendous situation.”
“I believe we already have very fine ethical guidelines that just aren’t being implemented,” said Catherine Luckner, president of the Siesta Key Association.
“It would be a shame to (recruit) someone who thinks his mandate is to come in and clean house,” Waechter said.
Mary Dougherty-Slapp, executive director of the Gulf Coast Builders Xchange, said the new administrator should be able to create a business-friendly environment in the county.
Dougherty-Slapp was among several people who suggested Interim Administrator Terry Lewis would be perfect for the job.
“I don’t think he would be easily swayed,” she said. “But I’m going to keep trying.”
Lewis later reiterated he has no interest in taking the job full-time.
Susan Chapman, a member of the city’s planning board, was the only person to criticize The Mercer Group for not having done the best possible background check on City Manager Robert Bartolotta when he was applying for his current job.
“I was severely disappointed in (the firm’s) services,” she said. “There were some unpleasant surprises.”
Those surprises included a hospital nurse’s allegation that Bartolotta had tried to smother his gravely ill wife.
The vetting of the county administrator candidates should be much more thorough and public, Chapman said.
Mollie Cardamone, a former city commissioner, drew laughter during the Phillippi Creek Estate session when she summed up the comments.
“We need the absolute perfect person,” she said. Then, looking at Maxwell, she added, “That’s your job.”