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Sarasota Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019 1 year ago

Sarasota needs more visionary leaders to get things done

The Selby and school board decisions are convincing evidence Sarasotans deserve much better.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

Memo to the Board  of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens:

In response to the Sarasota City Commission’s decision Tuesday, do it. Do it!

Sell your 14 acres of bayfront for the $62 million-plus that it is worth; let the property be converted to 300-plus residential units and commercial buildings for which it is zoned (including multistory parking garages); and take your world-class botanical collections and research where you are welcome.

Go to a community that has aspirations and vision. Why expend all your energy, intellectual capital and financial capital in a place where the body politic and neighbors want to live in a time warp?


Memo to the Sarasota County School Board: Do it. Do it!

Brush aside next month’s debate over whether to suspend or fire Superintendent Todd Bowden. Do what Board Member Caroline Zucker believes is the only choice: Keep Bowden as superintendent.

See how that works out for the school district — having a leader with no credibility with the people he is supposed to inspire and lead.

Tuesday was a bad day for the city of Sarasota and the Sarasota County Public School System. To borrow from children’s book author Judith Viorst, it was a terrible, no good, very bad day.

City Commission

It was such a simple, no-brainer, third grade decision. As City attorney Robert Fornier clearly explained the question before the city commissioners at 9 p.m. Tuesday:

“Is it in the public interest” to change the future land use classification of Selby’s 14.7 acres from community office/institutional future land use to Metropolitcan/Regional land use?

Even more elementary than that, the resolution to be decided was whether to authorize sending Selby’s proposed comprehensive plan amendment to the state reviewing agencies for review and comment.

It was NOT a vote on whether to approve the specific site plan and details of Selby’s proposed expansion plan. Indeed, it could not get any simpler than this: Commissioners were voting on whether to change Selby’s future land-use classification to a classification for which the property already is being used!

To their credit, Mayor Liz Alpert and Commissioner Hagen Brody tried to spoon feed their colleagues.

Alpert told them exactly that: That the Metropolitan/Regional land use is for high-traffic attractions that draw visitors from great distances, which is what Selby is already doing.

A few minutes before, Brody deftly pointed out that if this classification were not approved, and if Selby’s plan ultimately were rejected, Selby’s board could sell its 14.7 acres to developers for intense residential and/or office use — from 190 to more than 360 units in multistory condos.

But this common sense rationale was to no avail with the three commissioners who voted against sending Selby’s amendment to the state: Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch, Shelli Freeland Eddie and Willie Shaw.

They each are deserving of specific mention.

  • Ahearn-Koch — No one expected her to vote in favor of Selby’s plan. As she shuffled through her tabbed papers, she led the remaining audience in the Commission Chambers into the weeds of six-point-five dash three-point-four-A on this page or that page and this section or that section of the comp plan to prove to everyone that Selby’s plan was not compatible with the neighborhood and that Mound Street is already a dangerous street and her top concern is the safety of the citizens. Oh, but she told everyone she loves Selby and was so impressed with its staff.
  • Freeland Eddie — Another weed dweller. No matter how many times city attorney Fournier tried to explain her vote was on whether the comp plan amendment was in the public interest, Freeland-Eddie flipped through her notes repeatedly to raise questions about specific court rulings that were completely irrelevant to the issue at hand. Fournier was clearly becoming exasperated that he couldn’t get her out of the weeds.
  • Shaw — Ever the dramatist, Shaw began with a patronizing tone, telling the Selby staff: “You are so kind and nice to bring about job training and memberships to the community so deeply underserved. …”

And there you go. Shaw launched into the usual Willie Shaw soliloquy about job quotas.

On he went, chastising Selby and multiple other employers for not having enough people of color in their employ.

“You said you’re going to bring everyone into it. I don’t see it. … If we’re not going to do what we’re supposed to do and become an inclusive community, forget Selby or anything else you want to talk about.”

When Mayor Alpert pointed out the resolution was not about diversity, Shaw said he was not supporting Selby because of traffic.

To watch and listen to the comments of Ahearn-Koch, Freeland Eddie and Shaw was affirmation again that the citizens of the city of Sarasota deserve far better.


School Board

Earlier in the afternoon, the Sarasota County School Board was worse. No, make that two board members — Shirley Brown and Caroline Zucker — and Superintendent Todd Bowden.

The issue at hand, like Selby’s, seemed so obvious and clear: Superintendent Todd Bowden made decisions in the sexual harassment case of Chief Operating Officer Jeff Maultsby that demonstrated poor judgment and leadership, particularly from the top executive of a $1 billion public school enteprise.

It was stunning to read the independent investigator’s report. A sliver: “It was Bowden who decided that [Cheraina] Bonner’s complaints would be investigated by an internal investigation committee under Policy 2.72, not by an outside investigator. … Bowden appointed himself as the leader of the investigation committee.

“Bowden should have recognized that he should not serve on the investigation committee and certainly not act as its leader. … He was not independent or perceived by district employees to be independent. Bowden and Maultsby were friends and were believed to have each other’s backs.”

That alone would have been a tipping point for any corporate board of directors. As Board Member Bridget Ziegler pointed out, look what happened to the CEO of McDonald’s — ousted because he violated company policy on fraternization.

In Bowden’s case, this was just the latest in a series of decision making and judgment the past three years that have caused multitudes of Sarasota County residents to question his integrity and ability to be the leader to work in tandem with teachers and the teachers union to move the district forward on behalf of students, parents and taxpayers.

But instead of being able to see the totality of Bowden’s behavior and leadership, board members Brown and Zucker were oblivious.

Brown’s major concern was not Bowden, but the school system’s process for handling employee complaints. “I am prepared to have a discussion based on the facts, … especially as it relates to policy, procedures and forms,” she said.

In her rambling remarks about her long history — that “I am not a talker”; that she no longer loves serving on the board; urging the audience to have an open mind; that the union won’t negotiate; “this all doesn’t lay at Dr. Bowden’s feet” — not once did she comment on Bowden’s handling of the Maultsby case.

She was unequivocal in saying her preference is to keep Bowden as superintendent.

Most stunning of all was Bowden.

When the meeting began, he offered to step down as supertintendent, in return for the following:

  • He would become the head of the district’s facilities;
  • He would be paid $170,000 a year ($50,000 more a year than the current facilities manager);
  • He would be given a 10-year contract; and
  • He also would receive 20 weeks of severance based on his current pay.

What does that say? It’s an admission. It also says, “It’s all about me and my welfare.”

Board members Eric Robinson and Ziegler, appropriately, were aghast. They see it, as do most people: Bowden should do what Maultsby did — resign.

Board Chair Jane Goodwin is almost there. She has been a strident Bowden supporter — in fact, too much of one. She acknowledged at the meeting she considers Bowden “a good friend.”

But even Goodwin said she could not go along with Bowden’s proposal. Unfortunately, she would not go so far as to say the district needs a new superintendent.

As we noted two weeks ago, this will be her legacy.


New leaders needed

Altogether, Tuesday’s actions of the City Commission and School Board provide convincing evidence that the city of Sarasota and Sarasota County School Board are in desperate need of a new, younger generation of competent, thoughtful, accomplished leaders.

Tuesday’s actions of the City Commission and school board are sending an urgent message to the region’s business and civic leaders and to the Gen X and Gen Y up-and-comers who care about the future of the city. You’re needed.

Population growth and economic growth are essential to the flourishing of wealth and opportunity. Young people striving to make it and looking for opportunity gravitate to communities that are on the move, aspirational and popping with opportunity.

They leave places that don’t want to grow.

Likewise, in business, predominant reasons people leave their jobs are because of a bad boss and bad working environment.

We don’t want Selby to leave. Our readers know we fully support Selby’s vision and plans. We hope Selby’s board does not give up.

Likewise, we don’t believe Todd Bowden should stay. For the sake of the school district teachers, students and parents, the board must find a superintendent who exudes the values everyone wants and expects in a leader.

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