Calculating the Odds in Reno

Under The Hood


One can’t blame Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin for taking interest in a vacancy in Reno. The city, with a population of 241,455, stands as the 87th most populous city in America and the third largest in Nevada. The last Reno city manager earned $195,763 a year, while Barwin was hired in Sarasota with a $175,000 salary. So since the announcement Barwin was among five finalists for Reno city manager, Sarasotans have asked two questions: What sort of shot does Barwin have at the job? And what happens at Sarasota City Hall if he goes?

On the first question, a complete answer requires a study of Reno politicians’ ambitions not easily discerned this far away. The most important question in front there may be whether to hire an official experienced with tackling the problems of a big city or if somebody who could turn the western municipality into more of a model community.

Other applicants for the Reno job hail from Clark County, Nevada; Tusa, Oklahama; San Bernardino, Calif.; and Rocklin, Calif. Sarasota is a smaller city, just 55,000 residents, than any of those jurisdictions, only about a fifth the size of Reno in population. Rocklin, a community of about 61,000, is the only other city comparable in size to here in size. San Bernardino, in contrast, boasts more than 216,000, and Tulsa is larger than Reno, with more than 403,000. It’s not quite fair comparing Clark County’s 2.1 million, since running a county is a different animal, though it’s notable that county includes mega-metropolis Las Vegas.

For me, I took special note San Bernardino’s city manager made the list. I lived outside that community about a decade ago, when gang violence dominated headlines. Since my year there, the community has suffered a high-profile terrorist attack and declared bankruptcy. City Manager Mark Scott, a Reno finalist, came into his position recently and helped lead the community toward financial stability. Of course, Clark County also famously deals with organized crime issues. Barwin’s own application to Reno highlights the decline in crime during his 4-and-a-half-year tenure in Sarasota, and the city has had issues with violence. The city had 425 violent crimes reported in 2015, according to FBI statistics, compared to 1,168 in Reno. By comparison, Las Vegas had 12,648. Barwin also boasts a background in law enforcement predating his move into city management, but Reno could decide they need someone experienced helming a metropolitan, urban department.

But Reno officials also have to decide what they want to become. Barwin’s time in Sarasota includes rocky discussions on homelessness, though he confidently says the city has found the right track and that recent workshops with county and regional leaders make him more confident in a working solution than ever. He’s also been here while conversations evolved on updating city codes and reimaging the Bayfront as a cultural gem instead of a dock and a parking lot.

Reno’s odds? Barwin concedes he starts with a 1-in-5 chance at job, but if you add in distance and community size, percentages go down from there. He stresses that recruiters asked him to apply for this job and he isn’t on the hunt for a new workplace. Since other applicants also attest they were recruited, there’s no reason to doubt that.

But has this whet his appetitie for a move? Mayor Willie Shaw this week asked Barwin what it might take to make him stay. “This has stimulated some conversation,” Barwin tells me. A higher salary never scared anyone away, of course, but it sounds like Barwin most wants job security. Sarasota historically employed some long-time managers, notably 38-year manager Kenneth Thompson, but tenures have gotten shorter in recent times even as the national average tenure for managers has gone above 7 years. Barwin’s predecessor in Sarasota, Bob Bartolotta, lasted 4 and a half years, about as long as Barwin has up until now.

There’s an election in March, most likely to be settled in May, when at least one more city commissioner join move into City Hall. If Barwin gets the Reno job after a Feb. 21 interview, filling his post becomes the biggest issue in this campaign Of course, the style of the sitting administrator has already become an issue on the trail. Even if Barwin doesn’t move on now, the commission this summer may have to decide if they make a commitment and investment to retain Barwin the next time a major American cities calls him on the phone.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor of SRQ Media Group.

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