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Sarasota Thursday, Sep. 2, 2021 3 months ago

Strong mayor? Commission oversight? Committee examines charter options

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The Charter Review Committee has less than seven months to discuss potential changes to the city’s foundational governing document. Finished with preliminary work, the board’s about to dive in.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

On Monday, the city invited the public to share thoughts on potential revisions to a foundational document for the municipal government, encouraging residents to join in with the once-in-a-decade process of reviewing the city’s charter.

In total, four people showed up to speak at this week’s meeting of the Charter Review Committee, held with the intent of gathering community input to guide the seven-month effort to examine the charter for possible changes. Another five people offered input remotely, but at the conclusion of that portion of the meeting, Chairwoman Carolyn Mason expressed disappointment in the level of participation the board was able to draw.

“I had hoped we would have a packed house, but it isn’t so,” Mason said. 

City staff assured the board the public would have more opportunities to share input as a group of 10 citizens — two appointed by each city commissioner — continues the decennial task of discussing options for charter amendments. The Charter Review Committee held its first meeting on Aug. 23 and will continue to work until March, when it presents a final list of recommendations to the City Commission for consideration.

At its two meetings to date, the board has focused primarily on preliminary tasks — introductions, scheduling, a look back at the work of the 2011 Charter Review Committee and gathering public input. Based on the input shared at Monday’s meeting, as well as commentary from committee members, here’s a few subjects the group could examine as it digs into the substance of the city charter:

Elected mayor

One of the most frequently discussed changes to the city charter revolves around the power structure on which the municipal government is built.

The city operates under a commission-manager form of government, in which a body of five equal elected commissioners oversees a city manager who serves as chief administrator. The position of mayor is a ceremonial title that leads commission meetings; the board votes annually to decide which member fills that role.

Over the past 25 years, there have been a series of attempts to change that system to one that allows voters to directly elect the mayor. Some of those proposals sought to establish a “strong mayor” as the leading role in city government, a position that would carry more power than an individual commissioner. In 1996, 2002 and 2009, elected mayor referendums reached the ballot, but voters rejected the changes each time.

In 2012, Commissioner Paul Caragiulo pushed for another strong mayor referendum but did not find support among elected officials. A 2014 citizen-initiated elected mayor proposal failed to make the ballot, too.

In 2011, the last Charter Review Committee discussed the prospect of an elected mayor amendment but declined to consider such a change, noting the concept had failed to win majority support from the electorate on multiple occasions. At the outset of this decade’s charter review process, the subject has arisen once again: Three members of the public spoke in support of an elected mayor at Monday’s meeting, while two spoke in opposition.

“I know the question has been asked before, but this is a vastly different constituency than the last time the question was asked,” said resident Ian Black, a proponent of creating an elected mayor.

“As the saying goes — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said resident Flo Entler, an elected mayor opponent.

Committee members Dan Clermont and Cathy Antunes described the elected mayor question as an “elephant in the room.” Although the committee plans to go through the charter section-by-section in order, board members discussed the possibility of scheduling and advertising standalone meetings on topics expected to gather more significant public interest.

Commissioner oversight

Antunes highlighted another potential topic of public interest at Monday’s meeting: workplace accountability for elected officials.

Two speakers at Monday’s meeting asked the committee to explore options for taking action against commissioners who misuse power or create a hostile work environment. Those speakers alluded to a recent incident in which an outburst at City Hall from Mayor Hagen Brody drew concerns from staff members, elected officials and members of the public.

“Courtesy, self-control and respect for others cannot be prescribed, but the repercussions when norms of professionalism are violated and raging is mistaken for leadership must be,” resident Kelly Franklin said.

When the City Commission discussed Brody’s behavior, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch noted there is no established protocol for investigating or acting on a complaint registered against an elected official. The commission ultimately declined to conduct an investigation. Antunes noted the Charter Review Committee may need to have a future conversation about what section of the charter might be most appropriate for potential language about commissioner oversight. 

“I don’t know where a [human resources] situation with a city commissioner fits in here,” Antunes said.

Commissioner salary

In 2011, the Charter Review Committee recommended asking voters to give the City Commission a raise — but the commission declined to put such a question on the ballot.

City commissioners receive just over $28,000 annually. A majority of the sitting commission continues to work other jobs. By contrast, members of the Sarasota County Commission receive more than $91,000 annually.

Resident Jon Baugh lobbied the Charter Review Committee to once again take up a commissioner pay increase as a recommended amendment.

“They work a ridiculous amount of hours and have an incredible responsibility to the city,” Baugh said Monday. “They are the five most important people in the city. You’re limiting the amount of people that can run for this position with the salary.”

Electoral reform

In 2007, voters approved a charter amendment requiring instant runoff voting for city elections — but the city has not yet held an election with a ranked-choice ballot.

Currently, the charter states instant runoff voting shall go into effect within two years of the state certifying software for the ballots that are compatible with the city’s voting machinery. Although the city is not obligated to pursue a change to its balloting system on its own, resident Rob Grant suggested the Charter Review Committee could revisit the topic of instant runoff voting.

“Ranked-choice voting fosters civility and saves taxpayer money by eliminating runoff elections,” Grant said.

Other topics related to elections came up at Monday’s meeting. In addition to supporting an elected mayor, resident Diana Hamilton endorsed a change to the process by which commissioners are elected. Currently, three commissioners are elected by individual districts within the city, while two at-large members are elected by all voters. Hamilton suggested making all five positions district representatives.

City Attorney Robert Fournier also ran down a list of smaller charter revisions the 2011 committee recommended pursuing but that voters rejected. Several of those changes pertained to election management, including finance reporting for candidates and procedures for revising district boundaries following the publication of the census.

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