Marlon Brown was named Sarasota’s city manager in January, after serving as deputy city manager since 2009. He replaces Tom Barwin, who had served as the city’s top administrator since 2012. Brown, who has a master’s in city planning from Georgia Tech, is taking over in a new world.
In November, two new city commissioners, Erik Arroyo and Kyle Battie, were elected. Construction on a roundabout at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue is underway. And Brown will preside over one of the area’s most ambitious initiatives: the redevelopment of 53 acres of city-owned land along Sarasota’s bayfront. Earlier this year, Brown was just getting his feet wet. “Some people talk about drinking from the fire hydrant,” he says. “I feel like I’ve been drinking from the reservoir itself.”
How are you dealing with a city commission in which two out of five members are newly elected?
With two new commissioners, two different personalities, two different outlooks and two different constituencies, I sort of feed on that. Vice Mayor Erik Arroyo has this eagerness to get things on the agenda and in front of the commission to make a decision.
On the other hand, Commissioner Kyle Battie is a little bit more laid-back, waiting to learn. He has not been in government before and is relying more on staff to bring him up to speed. For him, it’s: “How do I thread through what I’m hearing on the outside and what is factual on the inside?”
How do you see your role in working with and educating the commissioners?
My role is to get them the facts and information, so they can make an informed decision as a body. They are not here every day. They don’t know the nuances of a lot of issues, whether it’s a zoning text amendment or a technical deviation or issues that may actually be in the city code. It would be an injustice to them if I didn’t at least get them to a point where they’re comfortable with what we may have provided them before they can have that deliberative process and make an informed decision.
What are your priorities in the city manager role?
I’ll be taking a look at our structure. Do we have the right individuals in the right positions to really be effective?
One of the biggest issues coming up shortly is the budget. With past budgets, when we come down to that final day when commissioners have to approve it, they are still bickering about what should be funded and what shouldn’t be. I don’t think I’ll solve that, but I want to lessen that.
A lot of times, when we have public hearings on the budget, we have one or two people show up. I don’t know if that means people are OK with the budget or that it’s just not on their radar screens. I want to find a way to get the community involved.
I also want to produce a quarterly report that would go to the city commission and be available to the public to share with them what’s happening in the organization. And I want to get some of the things that Covid-19 caused to lag moving again, like development applications and items we have had to put on hold.
How do you think Sarasota has changed since you started as deputy city manager in 2009?
To me, one of the signs that a city is successful and vibrant and welcoming is a city that is always evolving and growing. When I first came here, the Rosemary District was dead. Now it has changed tremendously in terms of its whole vibe. Areas such as the Quay were just 15 acres of grass. Look at the Quay today. I think it will be a great gem in our city.
I also look at all of the efforts that we’ve made in terms of trying to get more rentals and more residences downtown. In 2009, none of that was here. You talk about the changing demographics of the city—I think that has helped in terms of a younger demographic.
How do you see the role of neighborhood associations in Sarasota?
Ever since I landed in Sarasota, I have always—as much as I could—attended the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations meetings, because I feel it’s important to show that neighborhoods are important.
Without neighborhoods, I don’t think we would have a vibrant downtown and a vibrant, successful business community. They are what carry the heavy load of helping these businesses thrive. It’s very important that the neighborhoods and the community play a role in how we move forward.
What impact was there in moving the Sarasota City Commission elections from a March special election to the general election schedule?
A lot of people thought that by changing the date, you were going to get more participation, and you did. I saw that as a benefit, because I believe in the right to vote and the right to have a city commissioner who represents you.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Prior to Covid-19, I liked working out and going to the gym, especially after work, to help de-stress and get myself ready for the next day. Since Covid-19, what I have really found effective is walking. I love doing Sudoku puzzles. I do that every single day. When it’s really nice outside, I love heading out to Lido Beach. I love Lido for how quiet it is, how uncrowded it is. I take my beach chair, my umbrella, a little cooler with me, and I find a nice space and just sit back and relax.