Elected Mayor

SB2

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY MONDAY BUSINESS EDITION MONDAY SEP 29, 2014

It's been proposed. It's been rejected. Yet the topic of whether Sarasota should have directly-elected mayor, and what powers a mayor should have, seems a topic permanently embedded within Sarasota's political DNA. The merits and drawbacks of centralized leadership were the subject of discussion at SRQ Media Group's most recent SB2 event.

The panel, convened Thursday morning at The Francis, included Bradenton's elected mayor Wayne Poston and former Sarasota Mayor Mollie Cardamone, who was elected to the City Commission and picked to lead the board for her mayoral years by her peers, as mayors in Sarasota are still named today. The panel also included Del Borgsdorf, retired vice president of The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and former San Jose, Calif., city manager, Main Street Connection president Peter Fanning and Hoyt Architects' Chris Gallagher, incoming chairman of the Sarasota Chamber.

Poston said his position as mayor helped him lead Bradenton into a significant revitalization. It put him in a position to directly drive staff forward in economic development efforts amid the Great Recession. Poston, in his post since 2000, serves ostensibly as chief executive of the city, he said, and that put him in direct contact with department heads to set the tone in the city. In that time, the city has moved ahead with a Riverwalk, seen a major renovation at McKechnie Field and seen new hotels move into the downtown core. "I'm a big believer in leadership," he said. "Somebody has to be in charge." 

Cardamone, though, noted that Sarasota at many times has seen strong growth and development with a different form of leadership. Sarasota has a council-manager form of government with a professional manager running day-to-day business at City Hall. Indeed Cardamone, who served two one-year terms as mayor in 1996-1997 and in 2000-2001, felt City Manager David Sollenberger was a mentor to her in terms of figuring the business of government. She also noted Poston's predecessor Bill Evers oversaw a sleepy Bradenton while Sarasota was seeing a Renaissance. "That was while we were on fire," she said. "We had the Ritz-Carlton come in and condos on Lido. We were going non-stop without a four-year leader."

Borgsdorf, who supported an effort to create a legislative Mayor in Sarasota in 2009 and opposed a strong mayor effort this year (the first was nixed by voters, the second never made it to ballot), said there needs to be a differentiation between forms of governance and forms of election. Directly electing a mayor only affects how voters name a leader, and can provide direct accountability. Having a strong mayor completely shifts the structure of governance and can lead to individuals hiring friends for key staff positions. "If a strong mayor moves into the the mayor's office, if affects whether you have professionals or locals, whether or not the neighborhoods are as involved or not," he said.

Fanning, who was involved in the attempted strong mayor effort earlier this year, though said the structure right now has only led to political paralysis. "How can we have leadership in our staff and still run into the number of problems we seem to continue to have?," Fanning said. He said Sarasota has regular elected good commission members but has not seen continuity in leadership in recent years, which leads to problems. Since 2000, Sarasota has seen three city managers pushed out, and every city election has provided turnover in the commission make-up. "We keep changing the people. The thing we haven't done is change the system."

Gallagher, also part of the recent effort, fought criticisms that efforts to change the governance in Sarasota have been led by small private groups, noting Sarasota's current charter was written by one individual and pushed to ballot by the Chamber of Commerce. He said the reason the matter keeps coming up for discussion is that the city, as successful a community as it has been, constantly has seen nasty divisions among its leaders. No matter the quality of individuals elected to the commission, they cannot fill the leadership vacuum. "The reason this keeps coming up is there is an ache that says we can do this better," he said.

The next installment of the SB2 series will be held on "Connecting the World: SRQ Airport and Port Manatee" and will be held at the IMG Golf Club in Bradenton on Oct. 22.

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