Three big decisions by the Sarasota City Commission definitively demonstrated that the city’s leadership structure doesn’t work. As the city matures, it needs a leader.
At the turn of the calendar to a new year and new decade, the inclination is to leave the year that just passed behind and concentrate on moving forward, fresh and invigorated.
But some things you can’t forget and shouldn’t forget. In the case of the city of Sarasota, there were several things that sent the wrong and bad signals, so much so they were enough to make you say: “The city cannot do that again. It must do better.”
2019 was not a good year for the Sarasota City Commission. Three big decisions far overshadowed whatever positive achievements occurred:
- The commission’s rejection of the Sarasota Orchestra’s request to explore Payne Park as a home site;
- The commission’s rejection of the expansion plans of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens; and
- The commission’s acceptance to proceed with a $15 million renovation of the Bobby Jones Golf Club — in spite of projections of losses into near-infinity.
And while we’re at it, let’s not forget another big decision that occurred in 2018: The City Commission appeared to do little to keep Mote Marine Laboratory’s new aquarium in the city.
The aquarium is headed east to be near Nathan Benderson Park. But the uncertainty, consternation and importance surrounding the orchestra and Selby’s futures, along with what ultimately will happen at Bobby Jones, will carry on into 2020. Indeed, Sarasota Orchestra and Selby Gardens are to Sarasota much like Ford and General Motors are to Detroit. They are treasured icons, and the specter of losing them would be devastating to the city and its reputation as a center for the arts.
Now add to those four debacles — and that’s what the City Commission made them — what is ahead for the city in 2020 and beyond:
- The Bay Park — how to fund, say, $100 million to $200 million to finish other phases;
- A new performing arts center in the Bay Park — how to fund, say, another $300 million to develop it;
- Upgrading the city’s water and wastewater infrastructure — another $377 million — over a decade; and
- Accommodating work force housing or resulting traffic as condos downtown and at the Quay proliferate.
Given all of those major challenges and opportunities, it’s difficult to look at that list and have confidence that the city’s leadership and form of government are structured to bring those projects to fruition successfully.
We know this to be true as well: With five city commissioners governing the city with equal weight and authority, no one rises to the top to articulate and lead a bold vision into the future. We know how much the Old Guard Establishment disdains this idea, but the city of Sarasota desperately needs an elected CEO mayor form of government.
We all know this from our own experiences: If you expect a group of people to accomplish a mission, that group needs a champion to drive and inspire everyone in the group.
We can see in our minds’ eyes Sarasota’s Old Guard Establishment rolling its own eyes at the suggestion yet again for an elected mayor. The Establishment has rejected this idea many times — the most recent being in 2014.
The argument against it is always the same: The opposition always scares taxpayers with fear-mongering visions that an elected CEO mayor would become an unstoppable dictator. They often use the old Dukes of Hazzard character name, “Boss Hogg” — people who do whatever they want whenever they want — as the poster child of what would result.
Pardon the pun, but that is all “Hogg” wash. Nothing of the kind would occur.
To put it simply, especially for those who resist the idea of an elected mayor, just look at where you work. What would work better, a company that has a CEO who leads and inspires everyone in the organization or a company run by a committee of equals?
We hope you would reject the committee of equals. Everyone knows the cliche: A camel is a horse designed by a committee.
Or try this: Say a Martian landed in the parking lot of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center and said, “Take me to your leader.”
What would be the answer? “We don’t have one.”
That’s precisely the problem. That’s why Mote is going to Benderson Park; that’s why the orchestra is likely going to relocate outside city limits; that’s why the Selby proposal was rejected. Although each of these cases might have had issues causing public opposition or reasons that persuaded the organization one way, when you have a leader who can operate like a CEO, you can have a decision maker who can work out compromises satisfactory to both sides. (A good deal is when both sides win some and lose some but still are satisfied.)
That doesn’t happen with a five-member commission. We saw that.
In Florida government, the governor is an elected CEO governor. But the Legislature holds him in check; it controls the money.
When Rick Scott was governor, he had a vision, and everyone knew what it was: to have the best business climate in the nation to create jobs. He said over and over that the way to get there was to cut regulations and cut taxes and spending, so he worked on legislators to adopt policies and worked on state government departments to do just that.
Scott also became the state’s leading salesman and CEO of Florida Inc. No one would have been confused had a Martian asked who Florida’s leader was.
Likewise in municipalities around the state. Go to Bradenton, St. Petersburg, Orlando, Jacksonville, to name a few, and you’ll find all of these cities operating successfully because they have dynamic, elected CEO mayors who have a vision and then work with their elected council members to bring that vision to life. They become their city’s face.
Sarasota has no face, at best the ceremonial face of a weak mayor.
Succeeds despite itself
When you look at how downtown Sarasota has transformed since 2014 and see the sky dotted with construction cranes raising more luxury condominiums toward the sky, you see right before your eyes that Sarasota is no longer the small town that characterized itself in the 1990s as the small town with big-city amenities.
Sarasota is fast maturing and growing into an increasingly popular coastal gem. And this is happening in spite of its lack of visionary leadership. Indeed, Bob Richardson, long-time Sarasota developer and commercial real estate broker, often said: “Sarasota succeeds in spite of itself.”
As it continues to grow in prominence and cache, so the needs will demand dynamic, visionary, trustworthy leadership — a person who can rally citizens, build coalitions, articulate an aspirational vision and then make it happen.
The first step to get to that point is to admit the existing commission-manager structure no longer fits the time, and then in November, elect three people to the City Commission who embrace the need for an elected CEO mayor who has vision, who can inspire and who has the experience and competence to lead and execute.