Leading Question

By Hannah Wallace September 30, 2008

“Sarasota has outgrown the committee form of government,” insists Drayton Saunders of Michael Saunders & Company. He’s helped organize a coalition of downtown residents and businesspeople whose remedy for a perceived lack of leadership on Sarasota’s City Commission is a change in governance structure from a city manager model to an elected mayor.

Efforts to amend the city’s charter and institute an elected mayor go back to 1996. And despite all the failures, citizens continue to suggest new proposals and new players.

“We’re not bashing the commission,” says Saunders. But the sentiment among proponents is that commissioners pay too much attention to small, vocal constituencies. At the dais, they tend to get mired in details. “My example is, ‘Why are we on the fifth RFP for Palm Avenue?’” Saunders says. (The city has not been able to advance a public-private development on its Palm Avenue property behind lower Main Street despite numerous attempts.)

Three of Sarasota’s commissioners are elected within single districts, and two are elected at large. “Right now, you can get elected on a single neighborhood issue that has no relevance to four-fifths of the rest of the city,” says Saunders. “A global representative can run on a platform, and if you believe in that vision, you can vote for it.”

In 2002, voters defeated a strong mayor initiative by a margin of more than two to one. In 2006, the commission appointed a charter review committee to reconsider the issue, but the committee eventually recommended against an elected mayor form of government.

Political consultant Tom Nolan of the Nolan Group was involved back in 2002, when opposing groups successfully tagged that initiative, which conferred extensive mayoral powers, as a “boss mayor” effort and a power grab backed by business and development. “They certainly need to do their homework if they want to be successful,” said Nolan. “We had polling back then showing that people would favor an elected mayor. My guess is they still do.”

However, Nolan adds, the strong mayor initiative wasn’t vetted with focus groups, and the winds changed quickly once the details were made public.

At press time, no details were available about what type of mayor this latest group is proposing, but attorney Tom Luzier, a spokesperson for the group, says it won’t be anything like the 2002 strong mayor. “A lot of people who were around in 2002 were concerned about placing operational powers of government in the hands of an elected official. It’s not a model you see in cities of our size,” he says.

The group faces technical challenges as well. The timeline for a ballot initiative is posal to change one at-large commission seat to an elected mayor seat might require several charter changes. They would have to collect signatures from about 3,000 registered city voters to present to the commission in November. The commission could then wait more than a year (until the next general election) to place the petition on the ballot. The two at-large commission seats are up for re-election in March 2009, so even if the measure passed, a mayoral race wouldn’t take place until 2013, according to City Auditor and Clerk Billy Robinson.

But there are new faces among this budding coalition who may draw a wider following. The core organizers are a mix of familiar names—downtown business owners like Saunders and CAP Creative’s Roxanne Joffe, neighborhood advocates like Linda Holland and Diana Hamilton, and a few who served on the 2006 charter review committee, such as Luzier. They conducted a quiet consensus-building campaign over the summer, hoping to dilute opposition by focusing on the structure of city government rather than inflammatory downtown issues like growth. “We have people from different spectrums who all feel we need better leadership,” Saunders says.

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