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Opinion
Sarasota Thursday, May 21, 2020 2 months ago

COVID-19 creates cause to change

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The Lido Beach reopening debate serves an allegory for what has ailed the city: its form of government.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

We know we’re not the only ones. Every time we sit through a Sarasota City Commission meeting, we get a headache.

It’s not that any of the commissioners is a bad person. No way. Indeed, you can see and hear in their concerns and comments they are earnest and dedicated. They really want what’s best for the citizens of Sarasota — or, let’s say, what they think is best.

But after witnessing Monday’s City Commission meeting, you could say that meeting — especially the parts about Lido Beach and transportation — served as an explicit allegory for what has ailed the city for decades: It’s the form of government, the city manager-weak mayor-commission form of government. It doesn’t work.

It fosters committee-itis, indecision, a lack of vision, a lack of aspiration, a lack of inspirational leadership, no clear strategy, no risk taking. It fosters bureaucracy, mediocrity and cynicism (in the citizenry).

And even if that is all true, you can still say this about Sarasota: “So what if the city’s form of government is flawed? Look at what an amazing place Sarasota is compared to other places.” As Sarasota developer Bob Richardson coined many years ago: “Sarasota succeeds in spite of itself.”

It does for sure. But it could be and should be so much better.

Let’s use the Lido Beach reopening debate as an allegory.

Here’s the setup: First, remember that all the commissioners have the same authority — one vote. None is above the other. The mayor has no more authority than any of the other commissioners, except the mayor controls the commission meetings and serves as the ceremonial head of the city.

On policy, all five commissioners have the same power.

The city manager, on the other hand, has significant powers. In a state of emergency like now, the city charter gives the city manager the authority to “take all necessary steps for the protection of life and property and for the preservation of public peace and safety within the city.”

After whatever steps the manager takes, the charter requires him to tell the commissioners what he did, and the commissioners then have the authority to review and revise any of the manager’s actions.

But the way things often work in city manager forms of government, city managers are often reluctant to appear as power-hungry and in the media spotlight overshadowing their bosses. At the same time, commissioners see themselves as the elected representative of the people and like to involve themselves in everything that goes on.

In the case of Lido Beach reopening, it was complicated. All five commissioners and the city manager had their varying personal thoughts and feelings about how reopening should be managed — the date to reopen, with or without masks, how much testing should be required, etc. Plus, they found themselves trying to balance the tug and pull of their constituents — from residents who wanted lockdowns to continue to business owners and their employees on the verge of losing their livelihoods.

All the commissioners had an opinion, but no one was in charge or leading.

There was no one like St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman or Tampa Mayor Jane Castor or Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer or Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry — all elected mayor-CEOs — serving as spokesperson, leader, voice of confidence and comfort, hope and determination. No one projecting that sense of “Don’t worry. We’ll make it through this.”

We know what happened. The Sarasota commissioners delayed the reopening, which caused the county’s Ted Sperling Park to be jammed the past two weekends and the St. Armands Circle merchants to shake their heads yet again at the commissioners.

If you watched Monday’s discussion about reopening Lido Beach, you observed what happens at almost every meeting — Commissioner Freeland Eddie, the lawyer, mired in legal minutiae; Mayor Ahearn-Koch wanting more data; Commissioner Shaw always leaning on the side of no; while commissioners Liz Alpert and Hagen Brody tend toward economic growth and decisiveness, much less about the process.

When you look at the totality of the picture — the form of government and the personalities occupying the positions — the results are really no wonder. We made two lists, the good and the bad.

The good: The Bay, increased densities for Rosemary District, no more subsidies required for Van Wezel, St. Armands Circle parking garage, a stable millage rate.

The bad: Bobby Jones Golf Club, unfunded pension liabilities, the Mound Street lift station; parking meters, the deficit-laden parking department, overcharging of building permits ($10 million in 10 years), Selby Gardens rejected, Bath & Racquet renovation rejected, Gulfstream/U.S. 41 cluster at the start of season, city legal fees, form-based code — five years in the making then abandoned, 23% growth in spending in four years, new park taxing district, Sarasota Orchestra.

Neither is a definitive list, to be sure. But the point is once we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and its recession, Sarasota is destined to continue to grow. As it increases in population and specialization, the need for competent CEO leadership will be undeniable. The committee approach won’t work.

When disruption occurs, that’s the time to change. Now is the time to embrace the idea of an elected-CEO mayor. At the least, encourage candidates who understand vision and strategy.

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