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South Pasadena wonders whether it's time for a change

South Pasadena Commissioner Gigi Esposito says "something needs to happen'' to change the way the city is run. Photo courtesy of Gigi Esposito.
South Pasadena Commissioner Gigi Esposito says "something needs to happen'' to change the way the city is run. Photo courtesy of Gigi Esposito.
Published Feb. 20, 2018

SOUTH PASADENA — Only one municipality in the state of Florida still leaves the daily nitty-gritty of government in the hands of elected city commissioners.

Is it time for a change in South Pasadena?

Lari Johnson, who as vice mayor oversees the city's community improvement department, says it's time to explore what the majority of municipalities in Florida do — hire a professional to run the day-to-day operations of the city.

"Something needs to happen," agreed Gigi Esposito, the commissioner over the finance department. "There aren't big problems, but we need to work more efficiently."

The so-called pure commission form of government is a throwback to yesteryear, when the pace of local government was slower and less complicated. It made sense for the people who were elected to run things, especially in small towns.

That's how South Pasadena, a city of 5,000 covering less than a square mile, ended up with five commissioners who each lead a department — administration, finance, public works, public safety and community improvement.

The commissioner elected as mayor now makes $10,000 a year; the other four, $7,600. Every March commissioners vote to determine their assignments for the year.

The department directors they supervise have annual salaries from $89,682 to $103,530.

Today, fewer than 200 municipalities in the United States, mostly small towns like South Pasadena, still operate under this awkward form of government.

David Magenheimer, the commissioner over public works, says he has "not yet concluded that the benefits of changing the form of government outweigh the costs."

Johnson wants the City Commission to investigate the city manager form of government, and suggests meeting with retired city managers who provide guidance to local governments at no cost.

Judging by city manager salaries of other small Pinellas municipalities, hiring a full-time city manager would probably cost at least $100,000 a year, not including benefits.

Esposito, who worked with a city manager for six years when she was a city commissioner in Largo, says it is a "very effective way to run a city" but does not want to be rushed and says there are some different angles to explore for improving efficiency in South Pasadena's government.

Mayor Max Elson, who heads the administration department, and Gail Neidinger, the commissioner over public safety, say they lean toward a less expensive option — a "city administrator" with less responsibility and a smaller salary than a city manager.

"We (the commissioners) get along fine until we hit a small bump in the road," said Elson at a recent workshop. "We don't need a big payroll" for a solution.

Carley Lewis, South Pasadena's city clerk, is Elson and Neidinger's answer.

To anyone carefully observing the commission's meetings, it is clear that Lewis provides much of the glue holding together the daily operations of the city. She prepares the agendas. She knows project time frames, contractual specifications and financial details. She is the city's human resources manager. She helps keep the meetings on track, and she know's what's coming around the bend.

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Lewis' importance was underscored last September when she returned to work part time about 10 days after the birth of her third child, Remy.

Department directors took turns holding Remy while her mom worked at her post during commission meetings. Neidinger called Remy "the city baby."

Elson says he wants to increases Lewis' salary — currently about $89,000 a year — and enhance her responsibilities to work more closely with the department directors and resolve differences in weekly meetings instead of at the commissioners' public workshops.

All five commissioners said it would be beneficial to spend more of their time looking ahead at the big picture, including legislative issues affecting the city.

"We need to stop spending ad infinitum time (at commission meetings) on whether or not we are going to have a clown, a face painter or a puppeteer at our block party,'' Elson said. "That should never hit the table."

Nancy McCann is a graduate student in Journalism and Digital Communication at USF St. Petersburg.


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