Clerk Independence About More Than One Official

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY DEC 22, 2018

It’s never pretty when a city charter official comes under fire. I’ve worked from the outside with Sarasota City Auditor and Clerk Pamela Nadalini since she worked under predecessor Billy Robinson. That makese it hard to watch her support. But there’s two ways to look at the current debate about what happens now.

The first and most appropriate way will be to judge Nadalini on her strengths and weaknesses, and swallow some basic truths about working as an at-will employee. But there’s also a movement afoot to call into question government safeguards at City Hall. To decide disappointments about an individual’s management style warrant an overhaul city government would be gross overreach and disregard of recent democratic directives from the people.

But first, Nadalini Like many reporters in town, my interactions with the clerk almost universally remained positive, but I’d be lying if I said complaints about her management style sounded new. There’s been high turnover and internal dissention since Nadalini’s hire, and it’s grown more vocal through the years. Many employees consider Nadalini vindictive and imperial, with 54 current and former subordinates sharing their stories to investigators from Shumaker, Loop and Kendrick. Is that enough reason to fire a charter official? It is if three commissioners believe it to be. We’ll see soon, but the outcome seems grim for the clerk.

Regardless, the investigation into Nadalini’s leadership went out of bounds when attorneys recommended city commissioners hire a consultant to look at restructuring City Hall and eliminate the separation between the city clerk’s and manager’s offices, something that would requiring amending the charter.

Attorneys with the firm declined to further discuss recommendations pending the Jan. 7 meeting when Nadalini’s future will be decided. Fine. But that the firm would so cavalierly suggest a change in government structure when Sarasota voters recently and resoundingly defeated such a maneuver shows wrong-headedness and undercuts the credibility of the investigation.

It’s little different those in Sarasota who whenever a city manager comes under fire suggests it’s time for a strong mayor. At the least, this conflates a personnel decision with a separate policy debate to be had independently. At worst, it raises suspicion why people really a problem with a charter official in the first place.

In this case, it’s the strong-manager side exploiting a headline. Many who for years saw merits in an independent city clerk while Robinson filled the office suddenly wonder if Sarasota would be better off with a robust public access arm at City Hall relegated to a messaging department. All those involved must look past personalities holding office now and consider the high stakes of leaving access to public records and internal communications to administration.

As a reporter, I’ve been acutely aware since I started covering Sarasota what benefits exist with the current structure. In municipalities where the clerk does the bidding of a manager, requests for emails, personnel files and other sources of information that might expose incompetence or corruption must pass through a gatekeeper whose livelihood depends not on staying in the good graces of an administrator facing embarrassment or worse. This leads to delays, retractions and ugly court battles, often to get to the same end result.

That paints a dire situation, and I’m not suggesting anyone in administration hungers to play dirty with records. But there’s moments big and small when the public benefits from public access operating without thought to public relations. Managers want to manage, and that includes messaging.

Moreover, Sarasota already had this argument six years ago. A citizen petition in 2012 sought to make the clerk answer to the manager; it failed by more than 10 percent. Indeed, the nearly 12,000 voters rejecting the measure represents nearly double the number of votes any city commission candidate ever received in Sarasota.

City Commissioners will to decide Nadalini’s fate soon. But voters already rejected the poor idea of eliminating the clerk’s independence.

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