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Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin
Sarasota Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020 3 weeks ago

City Manager Tom Barwin prepares retirement plan

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Barwin, who has served in the city manager role since 2012, plans to discuss transition planning at a meeting next month.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

City Manager Tom Barwin intends to discuss his plans for retirement at the first City Commission meeting in December, he said in a message to Commissioner Erik Arroyo on Monday.

Barwin joined the city as its chief administrator in September 2012, coming to Sarasota from Oak Park, Ill., where he served as village manager. Barwin shared his intention to outline a transition plan after Arroyo expressed a desire to discuss the city manager position at an upcoming commission meeting.

“There were rumors around town that Tom Barwin was thinking about retiring,” Arroyo said. “I wanted to discuss that in a meeting, in front of all the commissioners. We would need to have a succession plan if that were true.”

Barwin’s message did not outline any specifics about the retirement plan, and city spokesperson Jan Thornburg said Barwin’s departure is neither definitive nor imminent.

“With a lengthy meeting on Monday, Novermber 16th, and a professional transition planning process well underway, I am confidant that placing the item on the December 7th agenda will facilitate both your, my and Sarasota’s goals with ample time for City Attorney [Robert] Fournier to review the retirement transition plan agreement,” Barwin said in his message to Arroyo.

Leadership void

Barwin’s retirement would add a new item to the agenda for a City Commission that welcomed two new members last week: filling the role of city manager. Arroyo said the commission would need to come to a consensus about the best approach for selecting a new city manager, but he offered some early insight into his thoughts on the process, should the need to replace Barwin arise.

“I believe that [Deputy City Manager] Marlon Brown is more than qualified for the position, but I also believe we need to do a national search and find the most qualified person to serve the people of Sarasota,” Arroyo said.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch said the prospect of Barwin’s retirement didn’t come as a surprise, stating she believed it’s something the city manager has been considering for a little while now. Beyond the fact that Barwin wanted to discuss his retirement plan, Ahearn-Koch said she had limited information about the conversation the commission will have next month.

“I don’t know what the discussion will hold, because I have yet to see any details about transition, about timing, any of the details about how we move forward, what that timeline looks like,” Ahearn-Koch said. “Clearly, the city — we’re going through an awful lot right now. It’s a big transitional time for us all.”

Ahearn-Koch said her ideal transition process for the city’s lead administrator would involve a constructive dialog that produced a plan where Barwin, the city and city staff could all come out as winners. Because the city has a talented staff — a credit to Barwin’s work, she said — she believes the city will be well equipped to handle a shift to a new city manager.

“A seamless transition will just show us what a professional Tom Barwin is,” Ahearn-Koch said. “If this is something that he wants to do, to retire, he would not have a plan that leaves the city in the lurch.”

Barwin publicly explored the possibility of leaving his position at least once before: in 2017, when he was a finalist for the city manager job in Reno, Nev. Barwin ultimately withdrew his name from consideration, citing an upcoming election and pressure from community leaders to stay. 

“We have several major projects underway in Sarasota that need a bit more nurturing before handing them off,” Barwin wrote at the time. 

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In October, the City Commission conducted a performance review for charter officials in which it said Barwin was largely meeting or exceeding expectations. The board credited Barwin for his handling of the COVID-19 health emergency and for his dedication to addressing issues the city is facing, though some commissioners offered criticism of his performance, as well.

“He has been professional and capable and his vast experience has served the city well,” Ahearn-Koch wrote in her evaluation. “His eagerness to problem-solve has occasionally run into policy-making activities, which is reflected in some of the areas where he did not score as high as he could have.”

In her review, former City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie said she was concerned about Barwin’s failure to inform commissioners about HR complaints accusing city department heads of discrimination and offers from private firms interested in managing Bobby Jones Golf Club.

Although Arroyo was critical of Barwin’s performance as he campaigned for the District 3 seat on the City Commission, he said his interest in discussing the city manager position at a future meeting had nothing to do with revisiting the board’s assessment of Barwin’s job performance.

Like Ahearn-Koch, Arroyo said the possibility of an administrator vacancy would present an opportunity for the new commission, but he also credited Barwin as a dedicated public official who has devoted considerable time and energy into improving the city.

“Sarasota’s very grateful for what he has done,” Arroyo said.

Should Barwin decide to retire, Ahearn-Koch said the new commission — and possibly the new city manager — would have to navigate the loss of a leader who had built a connection with the community and a sense for how to manage the day-to-day business of the city.

“Someone like Tom Barwin holds an incredible amount of institutional knowledge,” Ahearn-Koch said. “A lot of people don’t realize how complicated city business is because it involves so many different coordinations and funding [sources] and timelines and conversations. Somebody who could have those conversations seamlessly — it’s really invaluable.”

This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available.

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