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Sarasota Thursday, Aug. 6, 2009 8 years ago

Mystery Man

by: Robin Roy City Editor

For many of its residents, Sarasota represents a retirement nirvana. For Bob Bartolotta, Sarasota represented the chance to regain his career of 31 years.

In May 2007, Bartolotta traveled from Savannah, Ga., to Sarasota, hoping for a chance to get back into municipal government.

The former town manager of Jupiter resigned in 2004, after four years, to care for his terminally ill wife, Loretta, and worked in Savannah on the tax assessor’s board. A year after his wife died, he was ready to get back into the game. Sarasota looked like the perfect opportunity.

“His credentials were impeccable,” says Dick Lobo, one of 15 citizens who made up the City Manager Search Advisory Committee. “He came across as being more empathetic to various groups. It appeared he was more of a humanist.”

Lobo now thinks what he saw is not what the city got.

Lobo sat on the advisory board of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and thought Bartolotta took control of the Van Wezel in a heavy-handed manner.

“The voices the board had were silenced,” he says.

Before Bartolotta took over, the Van Wezel’s staff members attended advisory-board meetings to give updates on ticket sales and other business.

And the board’s meeting minutes were voluminous, containing input from board members, whether positive or negative.

Lobo says Bartolotta curtailed both of those practices in the name of better efficiency — staff was no longer present during board meetings and the minutes contained a brief description of goings-on.

“Board comments were not part of the record anymore,” Lobo said. “Because city commissioners visited the meetings infrequently, we didn’t know if our comments were passed on to City Hall.”

Mary Anne Servian was mayor when Bartolotta’s predecessor, Mike McNees, was in office. Since leaving the City Commission, she has continued to watch City Hall machinations as a private consultant. She sees a distinct difference in the management styles of Bartolotta and McNees.

McNees, Servian says, made his presence felt in the community, attending Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce events, Downtown Partnership functions, various neighborhood meetings, even Van Wezel performances.

Bartolotta, she says, may not be as social as McNees, but she gives him high marks for having “a high level of integrity.” And, although she praises his “transparency with the City Commission,” Servian says that transparency doesn’t carry over to the citizens of Sarasota.

Says Servian: “They don’t know who he is.”

‘I don’t do the social circuit’
Sarasota City Manager Bob Bartolotta is a mystery man. After two years on the job, Servian is right.

Interviews with more than a dozen Sarasotans — ranging from city commissioners, business leaders, City Hall employees and community activists — reveal few deep insights into who Bartolotta is.

But these people’s experiences with Bartolotta reveal some common themes. They characterize the 61-year-old Bartolotta, a career government man, as disconnected from the community, an inconsistent communicator with city employees and the public; as a dominant manager who exacts fist-tight controls on his staff and the flow of information; and as a bulldog for fiscal austerity, unafraid to make tough decisions.

Says former Vice Mayor Ken Shelin: “He’s not much of a people person. Employees think he’s uncaring.”

And, yet, some City Hall insiders characterize Bartolotta as being fiercely protective of his employees.

“In upper-level meetings, there is a lot more championing of staff than people realize,” says a senior administrator at City Hall.

None of the current employees interviewed by The Sarasota Observer wanted their names revealed, and some outside City Hall wanted to remain anonymous because they had pending business deals with the city.

City Hall staffers say they rarely see their boss, with those rare occasions being the twice-monthly City Commission meetings. He doesn’t walk the halls, and, until just recently, Bartolotta didn’t visit the city’s different departments regularly.

“The demand from the public for his time was unexpected,” says one staff member.

An apparent lack of communication has left some city employees wondering what’s going on at City Hall.

They know about the monetary constraints — a $9 million shortfall in next year’s budget — and they know many of their fellow employees were laid off — 127 positions cut in the past two years through attrition and layoffs. They’re also aware that Bartolotta has consolidated 13 city departments to eight to make City Hall more efficient. But they’re unsure whether those moves worked.

Bartolotta puts the savings between $3 million and $4 million, mainly through the reduction of salaries and benefits.

“Nobody’s shared that with us,” the staffer says. “It’s important for staff morale to show us the results. He’s trying hard to preserve jobs, but he’s not doing a good job of giving everyone the big picture.”

Even Bartolotta admits he has not communicated well with the public or his employees during his first two years in office.

“I don’t do the social circuit,” Bartolotta says.

As for the city employees, he has begun hosting brown-bag luncheons with different departments.

So far, the city manager has met with the entire staffs of the neighborhood and development, public works and human resources departments.

“I just ask, ‘What’s on your mind,’” Bartolotta says. “I love getting out in the field.”

The most common question is how the budget tightening is affecting the city.

Blocking out time for those staff meetings is essential, because the city manager’s calendar is packed.

Each day, every line in his appointment book has something penciled in — meetings with upper management, community leaders requesting city support for their cause, a weekly luncheon with City Auditor and Clerk Billy Robinson and City Attorney Bob Fournier.

A typical day
Bob Bartolotta’s day begins before dawn. The alarm goes off at 5:15 a.m., giving him enough time to read the local papers and the Wall Street Journal cover to cover.

After a five-minute drive from his Bird Key home to City Hall, he settles down between 7 and 7:30 a.m. at his desk, where he begins to listen to his phone messages and scan, read and answer scores of e-mails.

Some are complimentary, some are denigrating.

Because he has been negotiating baseball deals, working on a downtown parking garage, listening to input on parking meters and trying to make up millions in lost tax revenue, most days require working through lunch.

“I’m trying to get out of the office at lunchtime now and take a walk around town,” he says.

The average day ends at 6 p.m.

Weekend work is not unusual. But, because he’s essentially a newlywed — marrying his wife, Mary, last summer — Bartolotta is beginning to avoid the office on Saturday and Sunday so he can spend more time at home.

The demands for his time have taken away from Bartolotta’s other interests — travel and reading.

Hong Kong is his favorite destination.

“It’s the most beautiful city in the world,” he says.

He used to read a book a week, authors such as James Patterson and Patricia Cornwall, but, these days, he’s too exhausted to turn a page when he gets home.

Comparisons to the past
Many long-tenured city employees remember working with McNees and even his predecessor, David Sollenberger. Both were known for walking the halls, stopping by one of the city departments, opening a door, sitting down in a chair and talking to employees. Bartolotta has yet to make that kind of interaction a habit.

Staff members don’t know whether Bartolotta hasn’t done so because that’s just not his personality or because he’s indifferent.

In Jupiter, where Bartolotta was city manager from 2000 to 2004, he was a different man.

“I think highly of him,” says Jupiter Mayor Karen Golonka. “We all think highly of him.”

Golonka says during his tenure, Bartolotta set up a program of regular meetings with employees, much like the one he’s now implementing in Sarasota, and he followed through with it.

He is described as a fierce protector of Jupiter’s Town Hall jobs.

“In a tough economy, saving jobs is no small feat,” Golonka says.

The mayor also said Bartolotta made it a point to attend as many community functions as he could, including chamber of commerce and neighborhood meetings.

“He made himself available to all groups,” she says.

So far, Bartolotta has not afforded that same availability to most community groups in Sarasota.

“I don’t think he’s gotten involved to become part of the city,” says longtime community leader and former Downtown Association President Paul Thorpe. “I don’t hear that he mixes well with the community. The city manager has to work with the community.”

When Servian compares Bartolotta and his predecessor’s community involvement, she says: “McNees didn’t wait to be asked. He jumped in and said, ‘I should attend CCNA, the Van Wezel, the chamber.’”

She doesn’t exactly criticize Bartolotta for not having the same attitude.

“Maybe he feels it’s not his role,” she says. “But it would be nice if he were involved.”

Says Kerry Kirschner, a former mayor and current head of the Argus Foundation: “I don’t see an effort to build a consensus with the community.”

When measuring Bartolotta against his predecessors, what is said most often is Bartolotta seeks input from few people and desires total control of everything in his purview. Kirschner cites Bartolotta’s efforts to reduce the city’s losses in the Van Wezel.

Bartolotta says the belief that he seeks no input from those around him is mistaken. “I ask a million questions of staff before reaching a decision,” the city manager says.

But if he is polling his employees before coming to a decision, it is happening mostly in upper-management meetings.

“A high-level manager has to be a people person,” Shelin says. “(A city manager) has got to have employees’ commitment to work for him. Low morale (at City Hall) may not totally be his fault (Shelin cites the economy, too), but he could make a better effort.”

Praise for fiscal management
Economically, Bartolotta’s timing couldn’t have been worse when he took the city manager’s job.

Property-tax revenue, the lifeblood of city government, dropped 10% in 2008 and another 10% in 2009.

The city administration cut $9 million from the $162 million budget submitted last month to the City Commission.

On this, Kirschner says, “It’s almost unfair to judge Bartolotta with other managers.”

Nonetheless, fiscal management is one area in which nearly all those interviewed praise Bartolotta. One example: Shelin cites Bartolotta’s creation of a $2.9 million Budget Stabilization Fund last year. With the city’s property-tax revenue in a free fall, the fund has helped balance the budget.

“He is fearless when it comes to cutting the budget,” says Shelin.

Says Sarasota attorney Dan Bailey: “He seems to be willing to make some politically unpopular decisions.”

Of the 127 city positions he has eliminated in the past two years, 29 were in the police department. A consultant advised the city that 176 sworn police officers were enough to provide adequate protection. That number of officers is equal to the staffing level of 1987.

A highly publicized police union protest outside City Hall last month called for Bartolotta to hire more officers or offer his resignation.

The city manager’s response was to allude to the union’s contract expiring in September and implying that the protest was a bargaining tactic.

“I’m sure once we get to the negotiating table, we’ll be able to come to an agreement,” Bartolotta says.

Other politically unpopular decisions include passing on a fifth private-sector attempt to develop a Palm Avenue parcel and deciding to have the city develop its own parking garage there; agreeing to purchase three Orange Avenue parcels from Michael Saunders and Co. for $5.5 million for public parking; and purchasing $1.2 million of property along U.S. 301 for the initial purpose of building a Boston Red Sox spring-training stadium.

Ask the city manager about each one of those decisions, and he will trumpet them as some of his major accomplishments.

In Bartolotta’s eyes, the Palm Avenue garage will fill the need for downtown parking and provide revenue from the paid parking and the leased retail space in the building. Although the City Commission turned down the Michael Saunders purchase, Bartolotta negotiated a price that was $1.1 million below appraised value. A spring-training stadium will not sit on the U.S. 301 parcels, but the city manager is proud of the fact that a strip club and abandoned gas station will be torn down to make a more attractive gateway to Payne Park.

Public opinion had always been split on the negotiations with three, major league baseball teams to bring spring-training operations to Sarasota. A deal with the Baltimore Orioles was reached last month. Bartolotta sat at the negotiating table with representatives from the Reds, Red Sox and Orioles. According to
Commissioner Terry Turner, Bartolotta worked hard to keep the city taxpayers’ contribution low.

While Bartolotta remains a mystery man to many inside and outside City Hall, he appears to be pleasing those who count the most — at least for him — his bosses, the city commissioners.

Take the city budget hearings. The city held hearings last month to review the 2010 budget. The workshops were scheduled to last two, full days. Traditionally, each department head goes before the City Commission and presents his operating budget for the coming year. It’s the one opportunity for commissioners to ask direct questions and offer suggestions.

Anyone who has seen the county’s budget hearings knows how much debate occurs there. County commissioners press hard for answers, and the process can be contentious.

During the city’s hearings this year, commissioners asked few questions and raised no objections during the presentations.

Asked about the sharp contrast between the city and county, Turner and Commissioner Suzanne Atwell credited the city manager’s communication. Two to three months before the budget hearings, Bartolotta met with commissioners individually to inform them of his intentions and get their input.

“We knew what to expect when it came around,” Turner says.
Good communication, but only among a select few, behind the scenes. The Bartolotta style.


Using the reasoning that residents outside the city attend the performing-arts hall, Bartolotta asked
Sarasota County to take over part of the deficit.

“(County Administrator) Jim Ley asked how it was more reasonable to ask Sarasota County for funding than asking Manatee County or Bradenton or any other municipality,” said Kirschner. “It created animosity instead of finding a solution.”

Bob Bartolotta

Age: 61 Home: Bird Key
Marital status: Married for one year to Mary Bartolotta
Previous municipal experience: Town manager, Jupiter, 2000-2004
• Assistant city manager, Savannah, Ga., 1989-2000
• City manager, Dover, Del., 1982-1989
• Assistant city manager, Ames, Iowa, 1977-1982
• Assistant director, International City Management Association, 1973-1977
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science, California State University, Fullerton, Calif.
• Master’s degree in public administration, University of Southern California
• Graduate program for local government senior executives, Harvard University


No stragglers
Attendees know to arrive to the meeting early. It’s an unspoken rule. No one knows what his reaction to a latecomer would be, because no one’s ever come late. “It’s just a respect issue,” said one manager.

Always an agenda
Bartolotta always has a set list of discussion topics, and he sticks to them.

Differing on dissension
One manager says attendees are able to voice opposition to his ideas and offer their opinions. “It’s not frowned upon,” manager No. 1 says.
The other manager says staff members are afraid to counter Bartolotta.
“He’s kind of a dominant force,” says manager No. 2. “He’s not a good listener, but he’s getting better.”

Possible persuasion

One manager says it’s possible to get Bartolotta to switch positions on an issue, but “you have to clearly make your case.”
Another manager says making your case is sometimes not enough. “When he’s got something in his head, it’s hard for him to let go. He may not like to battle, but he doesn’t shy away from it.”

End on time

Because the city manager’s calendar is always full, all meetings end on schedule. Bartolotta’s assistants usually enter a meeting to remind him of his next appointment.

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