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Tug of War Between City Manager and Auditor at Charter Meeting

The committee decided to leave things as they are, recommending no change in the charter reflecting the auditor and clerk’s work as the city’s source of public information.

For years, two senior Sarasota officials were in a cockfight. One of them – former City Auditor and Clerk Billy Robinson – resigned. But his second-in-command and replacement was back in the pit February 15 before the Sarasota Charter Review Committee.

The scrap was subtle, but it was about power, the power of control. Only two people were in the audience, but the stakes were large – who will manage public information at city hall, and who will handle pensions.

The responsibilities now lie with current City Auditor and Clerk Pam Nadalini, Robinson’s hand-picked replacement. When she proposed putting her existing public information responsibilities in the city’s charter, City Manager Bob Bartolotta was there to challenge her.

The current charter makes no mention of who is responsible for public information. In 2004 Robinson hired Public Information Officer Jan Thornburg to publicize city activities. 

“We’ve always been responsible for public information, web presence, recordings and televised proceedings,” said Nadalini. “Our responsibilities have expanded over the years. If the Charter Review Committee wants to change that, it can.”

“I’m not aware of any other city having a public information officer in the clerk’s office,” said City Manager Robert Bartolotta. “It’s a question if we want to put this in the charter.” He added, “Ninety percent of the public information comes from areas under the city manager’s responsibility.”

Sarasota’s City Charter is a “mini-constitution” detailing powers and responsibilities of the municipal government. Right now it is silent on who runs public information and the city’s televised proceedings and programs.

Bartolotta did not want a division of labor enshrined in the charter. “It’s up for the city commission to decide,” he said.

His resistance came as a surprise to Nadalini. She noted her proposed charter changes were circulated, and she heard no resistance from the city manager until the evening of the meeting at the table.

The committee decided to leave things as they are, recommending no change in the charter reflecting the auditor and clerk’s work as the city’s source of public information. Score one for Bartolotta.

Another Nadalini proposal was also scrapped. Her office serves as a “liaison” with advisory boards and other inter-governmental efforts. She wanted that in the charter as well, but the committee balked.  Committee Member Elmer Berkel said, “I don’t believe it should be in the charter.”

Committee Member John Patterson agreed. “You’re putting these duties in the charter, where it is cast in stone. If we don’t [agree], it doesn’t reflect on you or your staff. We’re trying to keep the document flexible.” Two for Bartolotta.

Both proposals were lumped together for a vote. By 6-2, the committee denied Nadalini’s attempt to enshrine these two auditor and clerk tasks in the charter.

She narrowly escaped a move to strip her office of its responsibilities for oversight of the city’s three pension plans (police, fire and general employees). Committee Member Hank Battie asked how long the clerk’s office oversaw the pensions. “At least 25 years,” said Nadalini. A motion to add the phrase “serve at the pleasure of the city commission” was defeated on a 4-4 vote.  A narrow win for Nadalini.

The final action of the evening is of interest only to election wonks. Four years ago city voters overwhelming (90 percent plus) approved a requirement the final campaign finance disclosure documents had to be filed on the Wednesday before election day. Voters would know ­– six days before election day – who gave money to whom. Which political action committees funded the last-minute smear campaigns.

Unfortunately state law allows campaign contributions until 5pm the Thursday before elections. So City Attorney Bob Fournier suggested – and the committee approved unanimously – changing the filing deadline to the Friday before elections. While the 48 hour difference seems trivial, it gives PACs one more day to pump in money, and two fewer days for the public and press to identify them.

A final note: the committee wrangled about city commissioner salaries. They now make $25,049.87 per year, plus health care. Arguments ranged from former mayor Berkel’s, “When I served, I got zip” to Committee Chair Gretchen Serrie’s “What working person would take the job?” They decided unanimously to boot the decision to the city commission. “If the current commission is not dissatisfied, then leave it alone,” said Battie.

The committee does not have the final word. Its final recommendations go to the Sarasota City Commission. If any of them get approved, city voters will decide if they accept any or all of the proposed charter changes in a referendum. The election date depends on how fast the charter committee wraps up its work, and how fast the city commission makes its decisions. The charter committee’s next meeting is March 1 in Sarasota City Hall at 6pm.

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