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Sarasota Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021 1 week ago

Charter committee gears up for strong mayor discussion

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On several occasions in the past 25 years, the city has debated the merits of having an elected mayor. Will the outcome of the latest conversation be any different than the last half-dozen?
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Early next year, a committee of 10 appointed volunteers could recommend that the city make a major revision to the fundamental structure of its government — such as creating an elected “strong mayor” position that would serve as the city’s top administrator.

Right now, it’s not clear whether the Charter Review Committee will endorse the city’s current council-manager form of government or favor a change. But it’s a question at the center of the work of the advisory board, which convenes at least once a decade to discuss and propose revisions to the city charter.

On Monday, the committee heard a presentation outlining the different forms of government that municipalities in Florida have opted to use. That was a precursor to a full-fledged discussion of the city’s form of government — an opportunity for committee members to educate themselves before formally staking out a position. The committee will dig deeper into the topic at its Nov. 9 meeting, where the board hopes to gather input from members of the public and ultimately come to a decision about the optimal power structure for city officials.

For Florida cities of Sarasota’s size or larger, the most common alternative to a council-manager government — in which an elected council hires a professional city manager — is a council-strong mayor government. That’s a familiar topic in Sarasota, where officials and voters have considered the prospect of creating a strong mayor on multiple occasions in the 21st century, only for the idea to be rejected.

Although the Charter Review Committee has not had a substantive discussion on the city’s form of government, board members have shared some perspectives on considering a change to a strong mayor. Committee member Cathy Antunes, who served on the board of a citizen group that opposed a 2014 strong mayor proposal, said it was important to be mindful of the fact that the electorate has repeatedly declined to change the city’s form of government. Antunes asked the rest of the committee to be explicit about what problems it hoped to address with any changes.

“Given the history, what is to be gained?“ Antunes said. “Because we have gotten feedback from the public over the years.”

Other board members expressed more openness to the idea of a strong mayor. Members Philip DiMaria and Crystal Bailey said the city’s electorate had meaningfully changed since the last mayor referendum in 2009, particularly after a voter-backed charter amendment moved city elections from the spring to align with state and federal elections in the summer and fall.

“As important as our history is, it’s also important to realize there are lots of new voices,” Bailey said.

Multiple committee members have previously staked out public positions on the subject of a strong mayor. Peter Fanning was a member of It’s Time Sarasota, the group behind a series of 2014 charter revision proposals that included a strong mayor. Eileen Normile was the chair of The Citizens Voice, the group formed in opposition to the 2014 proposals. Dan Clermont supported a strong mayor referendum during a 2020 run for City Commission; on Monday, he was one of the committee members who cautioned against dismissing any changes based on previous election results.

“I don’t want to consider or not consider this question simply because it’s been voted on before,” Clermont said.

Regardless of what decision the board comes to by the time its work is done in March, any revisions to the city charter must also receive an endorsement from a majority of the City Commission. If a proposed change clears those hurdles, it’ll land on a referendum, where voters will serve as the final arbiter of the best form of government for the city.

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