The interim city manager shares his perspective on public engagement, working with commissioners, preparing a budget and more.
The city of Sarasota’s new head administrator is a familiar face at City Hall.
Marlon Brown, 57, was appointed interim city manager in December following Tom Barwin’s retirement. The City Commission expressed a desire to make his promotion permanent, with a vote on a full-time contract set for the board’s Jan. 19 meeting. Brown had served as deputy city manager since 2009.
Brown believes his experience within city government will make for a smooth shift in leadership, but he’s also eager to pursue opportunities for organizational improvement. Brown spoke with the Sarasota Observer about his approach to managing a transitional moment for the city:
What are your priorities as city manager?
One of the things that I’ve prided myself on is my ability to be responsive — not only to our city commissioners but to our constituents. And that is one of the things that I think I would like to drive home a little bit more within the organization. That tells a lot about our organization and what we do on a day-to-day basis. We are a service-oriented-type organization, whether it’s water and sewer, whether it’s [the Sarasota Police Department], Parks and Rec, so on and so forth. With a lot of the issues that come to the forefront, I would like to make sure that we are an accessible government and that we are responsive.
How will you handle your first budget season as city manager, particularly with COVID-19 continuing to affect the economy?
It will be a cautious approach. … We have not seen a major issue with the revenues. They seem to be coming in the way that we’ve expected. We’ve been very conservative with the 2021 budget, so again, that will be my approach. This will be a sort of a joint-type discussion with the city commissioners, in terms of how we approach the ’22 budget. I can’t really predict at this time where we will land, but I will assure the commissioners that it will be a budget that they will have input in all along the way, so that when we make a final decision on the millage and the budget, there will be no surprises.
New commissioners took office a month before you were appointed as interim city manager. How will you approach working with the commission, particularly when it might entail some changes in policy direction from the previous board?
Working with the two new commissioners — I say this all the time; I’ve shared this with them, and I’ll share this with you — campaigning is different than governing. There are a lot of things that you can say on the campaign trail, but when you get into the seat, and you start understanding and learning more about the government, you may see a different picture. It doesn’t mean that you don’t advocate for the position that you had on the campaign trail. … One of the things that I’m really grateful for is that both of the [new] commissioners have taken the time to meet with the relevant staff. They’ve taken the time to get informed as to some of the past decisions.
Your predecessor drew criticism at times for taking a proactive role in policy discussions. What’s your perspective on the role the city manager should play?
I do have a voice in the discussion. That’s part of the charter requirements. I do have a voice but not a vote. So my responsibility is to give the facts to the commission. I am not going to try to sway a decision — that’s up to the five commissioners. I am just providing the facts.
What big issues will the city have to take on in 2021?
I can rehash Bobby Jones, I can rehash The Bay, I can rehash Selby [Gardens], I can rehash discussions with — I don’t know where the [Sarasota] Orchestra is. We all know what those big-ticket items are.
Some of the things I really would like to focus on are getting a lot of our projects that have been stalled by COVID — a lot of the development applications, a lot of the projects that were requiring Planning Board or some advisory board buy-in, I would like to get those moving again. Those are the ones that people don't really see, but it really affects our, our economy, it really affects our business climate and I really would like to get those moving again.
You know what’s going on with hotel houses, you know what’s going on with noise and sound, you know what’s going on with administrative approval, administrative review. All these things have not gone away. They are part of the queue of things to resolve. But again, I really want to get our business climate moving again. However I, as a city manager, can help with that — and the City Commission giving policy direction on those things — that will be sort of my 2021 goal.
This interview has been edited and condensed.