The morning after Mayor Suzanne Atwell successfully called for the resignation of former City Manager Bob Bartolotta, the mayor said she was “focusing on the larger picture.”
Atwell and Commissioners Paul Caragiulo, Willie Shaw and Shannon Snyder voted during Tuesday’s regular commission meeting to accept Bartolotta’s resignation, with conditions.
Vice Mayor Terry Turner voted against the motion, saying the decision “convicts Bartolotta without a shred of evidence he has done anything wrong.” Turner called the decision “a stain on the city.”
The 4-1 vote sent Bartolotta back to his office to type up a resignation letter before walking out of City Hall.He had been on the job four-and-a-half years.
Just a week ago, Atwell told the Sarasota Observer she would not support a motion to suspend or fire Bartolotta, adding that the city “needed to stay the course,” with Bartolotta at the helm, until an Information Technology forensics computer investigation determined whether Bartolotta and Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown had been deleting emails, spying on employees through email searches and looking at confidential emails that were part of a federal investigation.
The commission Tuesday also approved an expansion of the three-tiered computer investigation by Sarasota-based The Sylint Group, at a cost of as much as $113,000.
Speaking from her home Wednesday, Atwell said that over the past week, she began considering other scenarios regarding Bartolotta.
Reflecting on a failed vote to fire him Jan. 6, Atwell said the motion took her by surprise.
“I wasn’t prepared then and needed more time,” Atwell said. “And, even though I am still steadfast, the process (of the investigation) must be carried out, I knew, for the greater good of this city, we couldn’t continue on this way.”
Atwell said the situation with Bartolotta and Brown had created an atmosphere at City Hall of “confusion, fear and mistrust.”
Bartolotta said he met with Atwell Jan. 13, at City Hall, to discuss the situation and gauge where things stood.
Bartolotta said he and Atwell discussed many things, including a Sarasota Observer editorial titled, “Time for leadership,” which was published Jan. 12. The editorial urged both Atwell and Bartolotta to do what was right for the city, to think long and hard about whether Bartolotta was still the right man for the job during such a difficult time.
Bartolotta said he was confident during that Jan. 13 meeting with Atwell that he still had what it took to remain city manager. He told the Sarasota Observer he was surprised, therefore, when Atwell invited him to her house Monday afternoon, to break the news that he had lost her support and that she planned to call for his resignation during the City Commission’s Jan. 17 meeting.
“The mayor had concerns about the big picture, and I respect that,” Bartolotta said. “I knew, then, the majority of the commission did not want to continue with me.”
Bartolotta also was surprised by the decision, because he had talked with many people in the community who had voiced their support of him.
“I thought (the controversy) would die down until the investigation was complete, but others didn’t think it would,” Bartolotta said. “I was hoping to get the facts and evidence on the table, but it was not meant to be.”
Atwell said part of her decision was based on the need to start the healing process, because the computer investigation could drag on until the end of the year.
“We need to look beyond,” Atwell said. “It’s way beyond the innocent and guilt part, and I had to look at it that way. It’s the toughest decision I have ever had to make as a commissioner.”
In the meantime, Commissioner Willie Shaw, who also initially had opposed firing Bartolotta, decided Tuesday to join the majority in voting for Bartolotta’s termination. He told the Sarasota Observer he “went the other way” only because “the decision had already been made.”
“I still supported the city manager during this process,” Shaw said. “But it was evident, with the mayor’s decision, the majority had been tilted, and there wasn’t any sense in not supporting what was already a done deal.”
Bartolotta, meanwhile, said he’s “slowly decompressing” and will stay in his Bird Key home for the time being. He added that he is contemplating a future that doesn’t include municipal government service.
“I don’t want to jump into another city manager position tomorrow, that’s for sure,” says Bartolotta with a wry laugh. “The whole county is 0 for 5 right now, as far as that goes.”
Bartolotta was referring to the fact that the cities of North Port and Venice, the town of Longboat Key and Sarasota County also have gone through manager changes over the past months.
Ironically, Bartolotta submitted a progress report on his goals and objectives to the commissioners the day he resigned. It was his last report.
The document focused on 64 goals and objectives pursued over the past two years. The commission had directed him and city staff to complete the document before it considered new goals for the next two years, during a discussion set for the end of this month.
Asked about the report, Bartolotta pointed to what he and his staff were able to accomplish.
“We built (the Palm Avenue) garage; did $20 million in infrastructure improvements; made big pension savings; started community policing efforts; and made the Van Wezel (Performing Arts Hall) profitable again,” Bartolotta said. “You look at what my staff and I accomplished in the last four years and it’s amazing … To have people base decisions on a bunch of things that haven’t even been laid out on the table yet is just a shame.”
Commission contemplates next steps
The focus now shifts to a special commission meeting scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday, Jan. 20, at City Hall.
During that session, the commission will discuss hiring former Interim Sarasota County Administrator Terry Lewis to be the city’s interim city manager.
Lewis, who has been invited to attend the meeting, has agreed to take the position if he has the commission’s full support.
Although City Commissioner Willie Shaw wanted the commission to take more time to make a decision, he told the Sarasota Observer he would support Lewis’ appointment Friday.
“Things were moving too quickly (Tuesday), and I thought we needed to take a deep breath and make the decision in a different atmosphere,” Shaw said.
The majority of the commissioners did not find it appropriate Tuesday to appoint Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown to the interim position, because he is still under investigation, Atwell and Shaw said Brown’s continued presence at City Hall is crucial.
“I trust (Brown) completely, and I think he will remain deputy city manager and help us moving forward,” Atwell said. “He knows this city inside and out, and any interim manager would need his input.”
Brown said that every commissioner but Shannon Snyder privately Tuesday had voiced support for him to stay at City Hall for the long term.
“If they have confidence in me, they can still count on me to do this job,” Brown said.
Bartolotta was glad to hear about the majority support for Brown.
“Marlon is a sharp chief-operating officer with great community relationships and a fantastic career ahead of him,” Bartolotta said. “I’m just sad to see him caught up in this.”