Exit Interview

Departing Commissioner Suzanne Atwell Sounds Off on City Government

"Commissioners should have more passion and courage. It’s sickening."

By Cooper Levey-Baker March 1, 2017 Published in the March 2017 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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Suzanne Atwell

Image: Barbara Banks

You said city government is not functioning, but the city seems to be thriving. Unemployment is way down. Tourism is at an all-time high. And there’s a billion-dollar building boom with dozens of new downtown projects. What gives?

A lot of what’s happened downtown has happened not because of the City Commission but in spite of it. And vocal but small groups of people like STOP! are coming in and upending major policy decisions. They’re symptomatic of a system that’s not working.

How are STOP! and others who protest growth and downtown density upending the system?

I give STOP! credit. They’re good citizens. They have every right to speak. I don’t happen to agree. But shame on the silent majority. When the silent majority says at a cocktail party, “Oh, I know, they’re terrible,” but they don’t come to commission meetings and speak, then they are complicit. The loudest voices are the narrowest.

A lot of people are concerned about growth and big new projects like the Vue.

To me, the last few years have been very exciting. We’re the centerpiece for the county, and downtown Sarasota has gotten so much more cosmopolitan, and density goes with that. The Vue has become the ultimate scapegoat for what’s happening now. “Let’s think of something to blame… Oh, how about that behemoth at the corner?” I live in the Ritz towers and I wake up every morning to it being built and I think it’s going to be fabulous. God forbid I say that as a commissioner. Commissioners should have more passion and courage. It’s sickening.

How can we get better city governance?

If you have a dysfunctional structure, you could have the best employees, the best commissioners, but it doesn’t work. I believe that we should have an elected mayor who will be elected by a lot of people. It’s unprofessional, it’s sophomoric, the way we elect our mayor. I also believe in a November election so that a lot of people will come to the polls. A small group wants to control the elections. They have done that for years. They say, “You know what might happen? If you open it up, you might get a developer who could be a Republican.” Well, cool. I’m a Democrat. I’m pretty liberal, but I am pro-business and pro-development, if it’s smart development.

What are your thoughts on the current commission?

Some commissioners don’t defend their votes or their feelings. At least [Commissioner] Susan [Chapman] does. Susan disagrees with me all the time and we go at it and that’s good. I’m not going to change my vote, but she stands her ground. I admire that.

What do you tell new candidates?

There is a big difference between campaigning and governing. When you campaign, you’re making promises. You campaign on the edges of policy issues. When you govern, you’ve got to move to the center. And that is the most uncomfortable feeling. But go for it. Get some courage.

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