City of Sarasota, Florida
Mentors matter. Marlon Brown, City Manager for the City of Sarasota, joined the podcast to discuss his career path, including his recent transition from Deputy City Manager to City Manager. He talked about working with the City Commission and his plans for his first few months in his new role. He also shared the importance of finding a mentor and how the City has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Host: Ben Kittelson
Ben Kittelson 00:00
Before we get into today’s episode, Gov Love is brought to you by granicus. Short term rentals or STRs are often found on sites like Airbnb and VRBO. And they are more than just party mansions in LA. Their numbers are growing at a staggering rate in 1000s of communities across North America. What does this mean for local government? It’s time to act. Short term rentals can be a tremendous source of revenue for local governments or a real community nuisance. It all depends on adopting the right Compliance and Enforcement strategy. To date over 350 communities have partnered with Granicus on their Short term rentals compliance programs for everything from address and host identification to ordinance consulting and permitting tools. Interested in learning more about the Short term rentals market in your community and how granicus can help? Visit granicus.com to schedule a free consultation. That’s granicus.com for more information. Hey, ya’ll, coming to you from Jacksonville, Florida. This is Gov Love, a podcast about local government brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. I’m Ben Kittleson, consultant at Raftelis and Gov Love Co host. We’ve got a great episode for you today, we’re talking leadership management and we’re taking a trip to Sarasota Florida. But first, the best way to support Gov Love is to become an ELGL member. ELGL is a professional association engaging the brightest minds in local government. Now let me introduce today’s guest, Marlon Brown, who was named city manager of Sarasota, Florida in January 2021. After serving as acting city manager says since December, and as deputy city manager since 2009. He has more than 27 years of local government experience, including time at a Metropolitan Planning Organization, the city of Tallahassee, and as county manager for Gadsden County, Florida. With that, Mr. Brown, welcome to Gov Love. Thank you so much for joining us.
Marlon Brown 02:03
Thank you, Ben, for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity to share my experience and share whatever question you know, responses to questions that you may have.
Ben Kittelson 02:15
Awesome, awesome. So we have a tradition on the podcast to start with a lightning round to get to get to know our guests a little better. So my first question for you, what book are you reading?
Marlon Brown 02:26
Uh huh. Could we use a city commission agendas as a book? I think for any for any government, or city manager, that’s probably a best seller right now. You know, yeah. City commission agendas. Um, other than that, you know, I have not really had the time to really get into any books. Usually I pass my time by you know, playing expert editions of Sudoku. But for now, city commission agendas are it I am I am drinking from the fire hydrant in agenda items and, you know, try to get a commission prepared for for the meetings.
Ben Kittelson 03:05
That’s fair, that’s fair. Let you get your sea legs under you as a city manager, and then you can go back to reading. All right. My next question for you. What was the first concert that you went to?
Marlon Brown 03:18
So okay, so I am originally from the island of Trinidad. Trinidad has a carnival every year. So as a toddler, you know, I went to a number of you know, Carnival type concerts with the steel pan. I mean, if anybody knows, you know, steel band was invented in, in Trinidad is the oil drum that’s tuned over backward and tuned to make melodist music. And so, from young I attended those types of, you know, you know, events and concerts, but my true first concert was a Whitney Houston concert when I attended West Virginia University as an undergrad. But Carnival is it man, Carnival, you know, concerts, the the events, the ceremonies that that that that was my first foray into concerts.
Ben Kittelson 04:09
Those are two great like first concert. Some of the listeners like longtime listeners know my first concert was Kenny Chesney, which is not nearly as cool as Whitney Houston. Alright, so in our era of kind of staying at home and doing a little more quarantining, less social gatherings Are you watching or bingeing any TV right now?
Marlon Brown 04:29
Stay at home? What’s that in government? You know, I love HGTV and I like the Home Edition type shows you know whether it’s you know, Flip or Flop, Fixer Upper, Love it or List it. I just like the creativity that comes with that ability to take something that looks shabby and worn and dilapidated and turn it into something that is like a wow. And so, you know, I love those HGTV shows and I binge watch that a lot. But recently, to be honest with you, I binge watched a series on Showtime called Your Honor. The Bryan Cranston and I think it was like nine or 10 episodes. And that was my most recent been binge watching series.
Ben Kittelson 05:24
Yeah. Awesome. And I love those HGTV shows too. And it’s always like, I think I could do that. And I’m not that handy.
Marlon Brown 05:32
Yeah, the same thing, I’m like, wow, how did they do that? Can I tear down that wall without the rest of the house falling down?
Ben Kittelson 05:42
The last lightning round question for you. Where do you go for inspiration?
Marlon Brown 05:46
So, usually if I’m able to get out early from the office, there’s a park in Sarasota called Rothenberg Park. And I usually try to do during the weekdays, probably about five to six miles, on weekends I do probably eight to nine miles of just walking. And then as you know, Sarasota has awesome beaches. And one of my favorites is Lido beach. It’s just so unlike Siesta, Siesta is our number one beach, but Lido is so serene, quiet, it’s not, you know, overrun with a lot of individuals, I just find a cool area with my beach chair, my beach umbrella, a little cooler with some drinks, some kind of drinks, just sit back, relax, and just, you know, I don’t go into the water, just hearing the waves, just lapping the shore and that’s my you know, my time just be inspired and just be relaxed.
Ben Kittelson 06:43
Awesome. Awesome. So I always like to hear how folks kind of ended up in the position they’re in and kind of what they’re their career path. And we’re gonna obviously talk a lot about kind of your recent transition. But for you, how did you end up in this, in local government? And like in this career, like, what was your path to your to your current job?
Marlon Brown 07:00
So it’s a great question, Ben, you know, when I left Trinidad to attend West Virginia, and, you know, all of us when we were kids, and young, we want to be something great doctor, lawyer, you know, I thought I was going to be a biochemist, I was really good and bad biology and chemistry, I wanted to be a biochemist. And, you know, as I attended West Virginia, I was also strong in geography. And, you know, my dad, you know, said, you know, hey, Marlon, why don’t you take a look at Urban and Regional Planning. And I found it very intriguing. And so my undergrad is in geography, specializing in planning. And then I went on to Georgia Tech, where I did a master’s in Urban and Regional Planning. And from there, obviously, you have options of getting into the private sector, or you could get into the public sector. And the position became open in the city of Tallahassee in the planning department. And that is when I put my foot into local government.
Ben Kittelson 08:05
What, so when did you make the switch to like more administration? What was what made you want to do that? You could have been very happy doing just planning.
Marlon Brown 08:12
This is where you sort of pinch yourself and you said, you know, Marlon, you know, you need to kind of wake up. So being a young, fresh faced planner in the planning department with the city of Tallahassee, I was always sort of intrigued by that dance that the city manager or the county administrator played with the elected officials, you know, they sat up there, the city manager, the county administrator brought forward recommendations to the elected body, and they approved it. Yeah. And I said, you know, wow, I could do that, that that looks so easy. And so that was sort of my foray into public administration, a position came open in the city manager’s office for the assistant to the city manager, I applied for it. And, and to be honest with you, I rose through the organization pretty quickly with the city of Tallahassee, so I was someone that was being watched. And so when that position came available, I was afforded the opportunity to become the assistant to the city manager to kind of help sort of my seasoning, understanding how city management work, sort of the now the behind the scenes negotiation, and, you know, challenges that really came with city management. So what you saw on TV, what you saw happening from the audience was not really what happened behind, you know, behind behind the scenes, but it was very intriguing and very inspiring. And I said, you know, hey, this is what I wanted to do. And from there on, moved up into getting my first position as a county administrator with Gadsden County, and then coming here afterwards as the deputy city manager.
Ben Kittelson 09:53
Yeah, well, that’s a good transition. So can you, before we kind of talk about your transition to your current role, but for kind of your your time as deputy city manager in Sarasota. And for maybe our listeners there are less familiar with Florida like, Can you give us a little background on kind of Sarasota and then and then kind of your responsibilities when you were deputy.
Marlon Brown 10:13
So I would tell you, I’ll give you a quick story. When I applied for this position as the deputy city manager, I came down interviewed for the position. And I said, you know, let me take a drive around Sarasota and kind of get familiarized with, you know, the environment here. And I was so amazed by how awesome the downtown was, how vibrant it was, you know, there were, you know, sidewalk cafes with tables and chairs and servers and people walking downtown, went over to see Norman circle, same thing, Southside village, same thing. And with Tallahassee, I love Tallahassee to death. That’s where I got married. That’s where, you know, my kids were born. It’s a really great, you know, place to raise to raise kids. But downtown, downtown Tallahassee did not have that level of vibrancy, people who were downtown left and went out to the suburbs, and that’s where their vibrancy was. And I was like, Wow, my wife and kids have got to see this. So I, that same weekend, I told them to come on down to check out Sarasota. And I can remember my wife said, Marlon, if you don’t get that job, you can go back to Tallahassee, we’re staying in Sarasota. And so and so that was sort of my beginning of really loving this community. And one of I think, in terms of my rule, here with the city of Sarasota, was ready to keep that sort of vibrancy alive, making sure that we are responsive to those who not only live here, or work here, but those who also visit here, in response to making sure that in my role as what I would call sort of the chief administrative officer, you know, the city manager was like, the chief executive officer was making sure that all our departments were responsive to the needs of our community. And so I saw my role as a deputy city manager, sort of the, you know, the traffic cop, in terms of things that were coming in making sure that we were being responsive and making sure that we are available and accessible.
Ben Kittelson 12:21
Did you have like a certain portfolio of departments as deputy or were you kind of general over every everyone?
Marlon Brown 12:26
It was sort of general, as you know, in the business of city administration, all department heads are hired by the city manager. So as my role was, you know, trying to, you know, take those responsibilities off of the city manager, let the city manager deal with the city Commission and the elected officials, deal with constituent issues. And I deal more with the internal situation with the departments, etc. So my role really, was quasi all of the department heads reported, you know, to me, in terms of the entity activities, day to day responsibilities,
Ben Kittelson 13:08
Yeah. Well, then I, this organization went through some change. Tom Barwin, who was the former city manager, and actually a Gov Love guest a couple of years ago, retired and so you filled in as interim, what was that transition like? I imagine, you’d probably filled in for him, you know, a week or two here, a weekend or two there. But like, this is a different scenario. So what was that kind of like, first transition into the interim role, like for you?
Marlon Brown 13:35
So when I listened to Tom’s podcast, I know he coined me as downtown Marlon Brown, I don’t know. But, you know, when, so Tom was a great city manager, really great. Tom gave me the opportunity to really grow into the position, as well as you know, my previous mentor, Anita Favors Thompson, with the city of Tallahassee. And so, you know, when Tom, you know, when he took a vacation or whether, you know, he traveled even by proxy, you know, taking on the role of sort of the chief administrative officer, I, you know, already had that experience of leading the organization and having, you know, department directors report to me, so with Tom, you know, leaving, retiring, to me was a very easy and smooth transition. I did not deal with the commissioners that extensively like he did, but I did have access to the commissioners, we all live in the same area of the city hall. And so, um, you know, that transition was very easy. They knew who I was, I mean, I’ve been here for, you know, for 12 years, and I have seen commissioners come and go, I think I have built a reputation with the community, and with the commissioners that they know I am someone that they could count on, those who left those who have come in, I’ve always heard people say, if there’s anyone you need to talk to about what’s happening in City Hall, go talk to Marlon Brown. And so that, you know, I, and I really appreciate that. And really value that because of my belief that, you know, being accessible, being responsive to the community, that seems to tend, that tends to have people rely on you for things that are needed. And so, yeah, with Tom’s leaving the transition into the acting role, and then into the permanent role was very smooth. And, you know, and here I sit today, and I hope I am, you know, doing the service that people expect of the city manager’s office.
Ben Kittelson 15:53
Yeah. Well can you talk about how you kind of built that relationship with the elected officials? Because it does sound like you were doing more maybe the chief Operations Officer kind of role and letting Tom kind of handle the interactions with the elected. What was that like? Were you able to build up that relationship kind of over time or was that something that you had to kind of really focus on when you were doing the interim role?
Marlon Brown 16:18
Well, you know, one of the things that I’ve learned, you know, through my experience in local government is, you know, you probably hear this a lot Ben, you know, local government or city government is a government that’s close to the people. And I that, that sort of give me sort of my, my foundation that I, I need to reflect that in terms of how I deal with the public and the community. So when I first got to South Sudan, one of the things that I committed to was going to neighborhood association meetings, you know, not trying to offend anyone in terms of the elected officials or town, but just just knowing and being organically being involved in what their concerns, issues were, what they were talking about, what were the issues of the date, and time, the moment and, you know, being able to understand those issues and be responsive. And I think that in of itself, because we’re we’re a small city, even though we act like a big city, we’re 56-57,000 individuals. Commissioners, they live here, they, a lot of our commissioners have been involved also in neighborhood associations. And so I’ve, you know, those individuals who then ascend from neighborhood associations elected, they, they knew me from the times that I interacted with neighborhood associations, or even some of these, you know, organizations that sort of quasi, you know, government organizations, civic organization, so on and so forth. So they, you know, they knew of me, when issues come to government, and the one that was more or less the gatekeeper of, you know, having those issues and making sure that we were responsive. So I think over the years, I have, you know, built those relationships by being engaged and being engaged and being engaged and being engaged, but the part of that is also being responsive. And to that end, Ben, it’s not necessarily when you’re responding to someone that you may be saying no to them on their issue, but it’s how you do it. And I think people, I think people appreciate more the response than not being responsive. And so, you know, that is one thing that I have set myself in is, you know, being responsive, they may not necessarily like the answer, or they may love the answer, but being responsive and being timely in that response. And I think that, you know, the commissioners who are now seated commissioners have been seated before, I think they’ve learned that about me, and I think it, I think it was an easy decision for them to say, okay, Marlon, you’re going to be the next city manager.
Ben Kittelson 19:05
Yeah. Because I’ve heard from, from folks that like, maybe are in a deputy or assistant role for a long time that they can almost get pigeonholed into that and like, people don’t see them as the person that could fill the big chair anymore. So it sounds like because you’re like actively engaged in the way you’re building relationships over time. You can kind of like people can start to think of you in different ways.
Marlon Brown 19:27
And Ben, sometimes, you know, with a change in the administration, you know, people seem to also tag you with Okay, you know, we want to have different direction and because you know, that city manager was somebody that we either liked, or did not like or we had issue with, then by proxy, you are also tagged as that and then they go look somewhere else for someone who they, you know, who they want, who they feel they need to get where they’re going, you know, that wasn’t the case here. I think, you know, with the change in administration, and I think because of my relationship and history with the organization, I believe these commissioners felt confident that they were getting someone who they can trust in terms of carrying out whatever their priorities may be in the future.
Ben Kittelson 20:20
Yeah. So do you have any advice that you give to someone that is a deputy now? Or is an assistant now and wants to make that leap? Is there, is there anything that, hey, I did this, and it worked? Well, or I wish I would have done this that you might tell them to do?
Marlon Brown 20:34
Yeah, definitely. And I would go beyond that, I would, I would, I would go even as far down as anyone who is in public administration right now, or maybe in college, looking to you know, to ascend sometime in the future to be an administrator. Get yourself a mentor, okay, get yourself a strong mentor, someone who is viewed as having, you know, integrity, ethics, someone, you know, who, you know, who you can trust, and, you know, and, and, and learn from them, watch them, see how they operate in the political Limelight, see how they operate in terms of that dance with the elected officials and themselves, when they sit at the desk, see how they carry themselves when they deal with organizational issues and personnel issues. So So get a mentor, and, and, and, and keep keep that person as a mentor throughout your ascension in your career. You know, I mentioned Anita Favors Thompson, previous city manager for the city of Tallahassee, I will always value my time with, with her as an individual. And the things that I have learned from her, sort of like, she was to me, it was tough love. It was, you know, she loved me. But when I did wrong, she was tough on me. And it was it was not, it wasn’t Marlon, you’re in trouble. It was, hey, learn from you know, learn from the mistakes and make sure you don’t repeat those mistakes. And that’s something that I say to myself, you know, you know, once I do something that is questionable, rest assured, I’m never going to do it again, you know. Critical thinking skills don’t don’t see everything. You know, I’m showing you an apple, you know. Someone asked me one question, what is it is an apple? No, it’s, uh, I don’t know what kind of Apple it is, it is kind of small, it’s whatever this apple is, it’s red, it has a green, green part of it, it has a stem on it, it has some little things, don’t see it for what it just is, look beyond what this apple is. That’s a critical thinking skill, don’t see things as black and white. Think beyond what your decision making will bring. So when you make a decision, think more beyond of okay, what is the impact of that decision in the long term. And so critical thinking skills is, is, I think, is a must, in any public administration type situation. And then you know, you know, your ethics and your, your, your, you know, sort of adherence to the values that international city managers Association, the Florida City County managers Association, hold those values and those ethics close to you in terms of, you know, how you carry yourself because people are going to be watching, you’re a public servant. And I tell you, if you’re a public servant, everyone is watching everything that you’re doing, day in the life, when you go to the restroom, you’re watching.
Ben Kittelson 23:51
Yeah, yeah. So on kind of that mentor note, how did you kind of keep that relationship going after you left maybe the organization where you were working directly for them? Like, I always think that’s, that’s sometimes a tough transition to like, hey, we had this relationship when I was working for you, or in the same building, but now I’m somewhere else and it’s, how did you keep kind of keep that going?
Marlon Brown 24:12
It’s easy. I mean, it’s easy, because, you know, part of this is not, you know, it’s where you put your egos at the door, even though you’re at the same level. And you, you know, you may be competing for your public dollars, you know, from the from the theme of the federal government. It’s, it’s, it’s that it’s relationships, it’s all about relationships, it’s all about helping each other. Again, you know, I talked about the associations. This, these associations are formed to help each other to help, you know, support each other and mentor each other and share issues or address issues that you may you may have had in the past that I am now experiencing. And so the good thing about you know, I need a favor or something. Even Tom Baldwin, you know I chat with Tom Baldwin, you know, probably once in a while just to say, you know, Hey, how you doing, you know, don’t don’t forget your past. Use the past as a bridge to the future. And, and, and, you know, if someone is truly going to be a mentor to you, they will understand that then. They will understand that and they will be more than happy to continue that relationship. And even today, as Miss Anita Favors Thompson is retired, we still we don’t talk as much as I, you know, we used to when she was a city manager, but we still you know, say hey now and then send with a greet, greet with each other, so on and so forth. So don’t forget your past. You know, you always have to, you know, remember it and use that as a source.
Ben Kittelson 25:51
We’ll get you right back to today’s episode. First, we wanted to bring you a word from our sponsor Granicus. Short term rentals are often found on sites like Airbnb and VRBO. Their numbers are growing at a staggering rate across all communities, in North America. And for local governments, that means it’s time to act. Short term rentals can be a tremendous source of revenue for local governments are a real community nuisance. It all depends on adopting the right compliance and enforcement strategy. To date over 350 communities that partner with granicus on their short term rental compliance programs, for everything from address and host identification, to ordinance consulting and permitting tools. If you’re interested in learning more about the short term rental market in your community, and how granicus can help, visit granicus.com to schedule a free consultation. That’s granicus.com for more information. Now, back to the show. Awesome. So to kind of transition to, you know what’s going on in your current role and kind of, there were two new city commissioners that joined little before you were named city manager. So how have you kind of worked with them to onboard them? How have you kind of worked with the other elected officials to kind of figure out what the plan is for the coming year? And obviously, I think we’ll talk about a lot about COVID, as well. But I’m just curious about that kind of aspect.
Marlon Brown 27:12
Sure. So again, you know, as you know, Ben, when individuals are campaigning, they make a lot of promises. Yeah. And so one of the first thing we got, you know, they swore, and they got into it, I said, you know, commissioners, campaigning is different than governing, campaigning is different than governing. And, and I said that to them. And, you know, this is no secret. I mean, they know what I say, and that this is a marathon, not a sprint. So a lot of things that you say on the campaign, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna, you know, make this happen. You’re still one member of a five member body, and you still need people to get your, you know, your, you know, promise or your issue voted on. And so one of the things Yes, you know, again, they came in, you know, fresh faced, bushy eyed, ready to, you know, take on the world. And, you know, one of the good things that we do here, as I’m sure the governments, you know, we do I have weekly meetings with, you know, with individual commissioners, I talk to them about issues, I try to get them up to speed, in terms of, you know, where we are today, where we were in the past. And one of the things that I try not to get into is, is this is what we how we’ve done it, and this is the way we should always do it, you know. I don’t think I don’t think a lot of individuals kind of, you know, you know, like that type of, you know, mentality, but it is good for them to understand some of the decisions that were made in the past, how they’ve been implemented and why we’re doing things the way that we’re doing. The good thing about my my, you know, these commissioners, is that, yes, they came in with campaign promises, but they’ve now all stepped back, now that they’ve been seated for a while, and they’re now seeing the lay of the land is sort of step back. And they’re now taking a sort of a pause. And I remember I have one, one Commissioner who came in and said, Oh, I have 140 things that I need to get done. And I’m like, okay, let’s just start checking off the list. And I will tell you, so that was, they got elected in November, we’re now at the end of February. He says, you know, Mr. Manager, you know, what, my list has not been cut down to about five or six. You know, you guys are just doing everything that I thought, you know, because what you hear on the campaign, you know, or government is doing this, and the spending on this, and this is what they shouldn’t be doing. But once you get in, and you see and you hear and you understand, and you take the time to learn, you realize that a lot of things already in place or in the works. And yes, government sometimes are slow and sometimes you know, individual individuals, one things going quickly, but there’s a reason for all of that. And so it has been around really a pleasure working with these two new commissioners. They’re young, they they’re willing to learn, they’re willing to understand. And they’re individuals, you know, you sometimes you think everyone is coming together with a mandate, that is not the case. You know, I will tell you, look at some of the votes that have been taken. They’ve been they’ve been, you know, apart in terms of, you know, some of the positions that they’ve taken, which is a good thing that that is what government is about.
Ben Kittelson 30:29
So, when you’re taking them through kind of, hey, this is how we’re currently doing, and this is what the organization does, and this is kind of how our current operations are. Did you have like a plan to get get through, hey, this is how we’re gonna introduce you to every department, or kind of what’s happening? Or did you customize it based on maybe, hey, this is my, their 10, you know, pet issues? And these are these are the departments that actually like deal with those things?
Marlon Brown 30:49
Yeah, so good question. Because for every new commissioner it’s good for them to get a good orientation, understand you know, where the restrooms are, how to find it. And so, we’ve done that with the new commissioners. And it’s, it’s a long process, it took them probably a good couple of months to meet with all the department heads and get a tour of the department’s seeing how they operate, but they have been more than happy and willing to do that. And, you know, and they come back with, you know, wow, you know, I did not know, you guys did all of that. And, and that has somewhat kind of slowed them down and given them a better understanding of how government works. Yes, they do still have some things that they would like to hurry. And that is where, you know, I have to come in and say, Okay, let’s, let’s see how we can get that, you know, on the agenda, because, again, you still need two others to support, you know, that, you know, issue that you may want to champion. And, and so they’ve gotten used to the process, and they’re still getting used to the process. But I know there will still be times when, you know, I am not doing things as quickly as they would like, and and the heat would probably be on me to, to get.
Ben Kittelson 32:11
Yeah. Well, you know, I was in a budget office in a city before taking on my current role. And that first budget process that a new elected official goes through is always is always interesting, and they learn a lot.
Marlon Brown 32:24
I’m about to go through it right now. We start off at the beginning of March. That’s my first meeting with the commissioners. But one of the things that I told them, I said, I want them to be intimately involved in the development of that budget, because too much too many times over the last 12 years, when we get down to the public hearings in September to adopt the budget. It’s like, well, I still don’t like this or I’m not supportive of the budget. And I think we need to to delay the decision on the budget. And it is, you know, at 24th hour, that is not the time to be having those conversations. So I’m going to do my best to hold their hands all the way through, give them opportunities to provide input, give them sort of where we are with the budget, what I’m hearing in terms of revenues, so on and so forth. And so when we get down to the to the end of September, there shouldn’t be any, there can still be questions, but there should be few questions.
Ben Kittelson 33:22
Hopefully. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for you. So kind of on that note, how has COVID-19 impacted Sarasota? I know like, you know, Florida is a very big tourism state. And, you know, any any city on the coast is so I imagine there’s been some some huge impacts for y’all. And to take, you know, the helm of the organization in the middle of this is I sure been quite the challenge. So just what’s been, what’s been that, what’s been what’s what’s happened like for y’all?
Marlon Brown 33:51
I would put it all on the shoulders of Tom Baldwin here. So we blame everything on him. We give him all the credit and the blame for- Actually, I would say COVID, obviously, our our our residents were our main concern, our businesses, you know, because again, the impact of them and individuals having to stay at home was something that was concerning. And so, you know, we did a lot of things to make sure that our residents and our businesses were continuing to at least stay on their feet, through things like ensuring that we didn’t shut off anyone’s water during the COVID, or that there were resources available to them in the event that they cannot pay their bills that they can rely on, whether it’s a nonprofit or some of the federal government funds that were coming down, through, you know, from the federal government to the state and then through the through the county. We initiated a small business assistance grant Where we provided funding, again, on top of what the federal government was doing to our businesses to make sure that they stayed afloat, that they can pay some of their workers and yes, tourism. Sarasota is a heavy tourist town in terms of and a seasonal town in terms of individuals who had second homes here and again, with the airline industry shutting down, travel shutting down. It was very impactful. And so one of the things as a government we had to do as well was, you know, what, what did we need to do internally from looking at ourselves to ensure that we ourselves would not be impacted in the future by by COVID. So we we froze positions that were vacant. And we also, again, unfortunately, had to cut a lot of our part time and contractual positions. And so we sort of prepped ourselves by both cuts, it allowed allowed us allowed us to have some savings moving forward into the the budget year that started October one. And that helped us a lot. Right now, again, the impact and the financial impact of COVID is still affecting, you know, individual residents, a lot of them are now getting back to work into the jobs, things are now starting back to open, but they still have bills that were left unpaid. And so the the federal government as well as ourselves did a second round of a moratorium on water shutoffs and give them the opportunity to kind of catch up. And that moratorium ended, will be ending next week, February the 20th is when that that would be ending. But I will tell you, Ben, this past weekend, was our first special event that we allowed in our downtown area. Now we have a farmers market that we sort of allowed to begin operation back in August. And we sort of used them as our like guinea pig in terms of how to really ensure that special events were taking the necessary precautions to ensure that people were socially distancing, contactless transactions, so on and so forth. So this past weekend was our first true special event that was not necessarily sort of quasi quasi government because the farmers market we kinda help. And you would you would be surprised at how active the downtown was in terms of that, it was an arts festival and it was also an Valentine’s weekend. People were out, they were still socially distanced, they were wearing masks, but sidewalk cafes, I mean, obviously we can’t eat with a mask, but sidewalk cafes were full, you know, you would you would you know, the businesses seem to be really going, you know, gangbusters. And so it gives me hope that things are starting to open up although slowly. Yes, there are vaccines, the vaccines have been rolling out. And my hope is that sometime soon, maybe by you know, June, July, you know, depending on the number of vaccines that we have, and depending on how things are going, the numbers are going down in our city and in the county, my hope is that we can get back to a situation where the businesses can kind of stand on their own. But you know, we are continually looking, we are looking internally at our budget and seeing what will be happening for 21-22. And we are looking to see what you know, from the federal government talking about another round of stimulus and assistance, we’re looking to see how that can help our community as well.
Ben Kittelson 38:45
Yeah, what about internally? I’m imagine there were a big, I see you guys, we have a video feature now in the recording platform. So I can see you guys are in your offices. But I imagine there was a big push to have folks work from home. And obviously there are still you know, departments and staff members that will have to come in no matter what. So what was that that kind of dynamic like and how has that changed over the course of almost a year, I guess.
Marlon Brown 39:09
Great question. I would tell you, you know, but I’m a traditional manager, I am the one who if individuals are not here at 8 o’clock or leave by five, and, you know, they’re they’re absent. This whole COVID experience with zoom and Skype and, and Microsoft Teams has opened my eyes to you know, how government could operate in the future. I thought by giving people the opportunity to stay home because of COVID, productivity levels would, would plummet. It was quite the opposite. I think it has really opened my eyes that people do work, even though they’re not you know, they’re not being seen. They’re not you know, they’re not being watched. People, people are working. So we had our HR department do sort of a weekly sort of trend of who has been, and they have the ability to clock in. And we have the ability to see who is on our city web, you know, system using our city connectivity. And it has been as steady as pre COVID, during COVID. In terms of people being engaged, people being productive, that has been an eye opener to the point where we have now made it a city policy, that people can start working from home on a weekly basis. So two days a week. And this would be obviously post COVID, two days a week, at the obviously the department’s discretion, individuals will be able to work from home. And so, so yes, it has been somewhat of a, an evolution, yes, there are individuals who have to come to work. And what we have done with those individuals is ensured that, that they are protected. And we have given them so let’s say our permit techs, for example. They have Plexiglas around them, but individuals are still not able to come up to the permitting lobby, to drop off their plans, and so on and so forth. They drop it in the lobby, we have a Dropbox there, they review it within 24 hours, and they get a response back once the plans are reviewed. And we’ve recently opened up City Hall lobby to the public, this was just last week, I believe, or last two weeks, where individuals don’t have to call a number to be able to be let in so the doors are open, they’re able to come into the lobby and pay parking tickets, but they still can’t get into individual offices without calling ahead of time. And so we’re slowly getting back into business as usual. But again, this whole tech logic, technological platform has kind of opened my eyes to allow individuals to, okay, you’re gonna kind of self police yourself. And, you know, you’re able to now work at least, you know, two days a week.
Ben Kittelson 42:09
Yeah, it’s interesting. Yeah, that it seems like it’s a, it’s allowed a lot of organizations to see that there’s different ways of doing things. And it’ll be interesting to see how much sticks after the pandemic is over. So let’s end with kind of like, the future and kind of what you have planned for the coming six months or year. What kind of initiatives or priorities are you excited to like, get your get your, sink your teeth into is kind of now that you’re in the big chair? And you’ve got kind of a, yeah, what do you what do you got planned for the next six months or year?
Marlon Brown 42:43
I feel like I feel as if I’ve already been in the picture for six months or a year already. It’s a lot of work I’ve been doing. It doesn’t feel like like a month, since my appointment and two months, since my interim position. It had, it has been a whirlwind, it has been really a heavy left, as you probably may have heard, we had a number, a couple of individuals who, you know, who resigned. And obviously my first you know, responsibility was to fill those positions, Chief of Police was one that resigned. And fortunately, we had an individual who’s had 29 years of service in our police department, who has risen through the ranks of the organization in all divisions. And so that was an easy lift. It was surprising to a lot of people because a lot thought that we do this national search. But again, with two new commissioners, myself just been appointed, I actually stole the Deputy Chief of Police from the police department, and he is now my deputy city manager. And so with all of those dynamics in place Ben, I could not really take the time to afford a national search. And so, you know, again, having an individual who seemed prime, ready, grew up in the in the in the community, in the city. You know, his dad was a firefighter, his kids go to public schools, has the respect of the rank and file, has the respect of the community. It was an easy decision for me to name Chief, you know, Rieser as the 12th chief of the city of Sarasota. Now, the Assistant city manager also resigned. And so that is a position that I’m not going to fill, but it helps me with our budget situation that you know, a lot of these positions that are leaving can gives me the opportunity to kind of rethink the organization, how I want to restructure the organization. Do I have the right people in the right place? And so I’ll be working on that over the next couple weeks in terms of presenting a new table of organization, to the city commission in terms of our reporting, who’s going to be reporting to whom, and you know, what, what departments or divisions we will probably you know, eliminate, obviously the assistant city manager being one. And so you know, so my next couple of weeks would be working on that, my next six months, will be working on the budget. Again, as I mentioned to you before we kick off the budget with the commission on March 1st. And that will be an extensive and intensive, you know, six month process leading to September, when they, when they have the public hearing on that final budget, we have a bunch of major lifts that we’re doing. We have a municipal golf course, that we need to make some decisions on in terms of, you know, how we move forward with that, whether we get a private organization to finance, construct and manage, whether we finance and find a management company to manage it for us, or whether we kind of do a hybrid where, you know, we split the costs of construction, and then we have them manage it, you know, are we self managing ourselves, those decisions have to be made as well. The mayor just put on my plate, a re-visit of, we have what’s called Sarasota orchestra, they would like to move off of the Bayfront. But they want to remain in the city. Commission previously made a decision on the location that they found as the best location, which is a Park, which is a park that the commission previously decision that that was off the table. Now the mayor said, you know, guess what, Marlon, we want to revisit that location. And that’s on the agenda coming up for the commission as a body to say, okay, let’s reopen those discussions. And city manager, you start those, those negotiations. And then we have an area on our Bayfront which is right now, probably about 40 something acres of asphalt that we’re trying to make into a green oasis. It’s called our Bay Park. And the fortunate thing is that we have some really talented individuals, civic minded individuals who has taken on that role and that heavy lift for us in terms of transforming that into a blue green oasis on our Bayfront, transforming those 53 acres into a welcoming destination for all those who work, live, and visit here. And so those are those are sort of my priorities kind of moving forward. Seems simple, right?
Ben Kittelson 47:19
Yeah, not a challenge at all. Yeah. Well, so that’s interesting, the talking about kind of the structure of your office and kind of the people you need and the positions you need and rethinking that, how are you thinking through that problem? So I think that’d be kind of a fun piece of starting, you know, the the new job as city managers that you get to think about that, but so how are you approaching that?
Marlon Brown 47:40
So again, the good thing is being here, for 12 years, I have kind of watched and seen how they, yeah, see how they have been performing how they, you know, they, they’ve been responsive, you know, how they fit into their role. And so it’s sort of kind of easy for me to start saying, okay, you know, what, this person seems best suited for this role, and this individual, best suited, you know, in this environment. And so, it’s, you know, but again, I’m not doing it in a vacuum, I have good talented individuals in HR, my human resources department, I have a great deputy city manager. And again, I have a good team. And so before I do anything in terms of taking it to the commission, I’m going to then engage my senior leadership to kind of share with them sort of my thoughts and get get their input. At the end of the day, it’s my decision, they are but again, I, my, my, one of my values is to be as transparent as possible, and not do anything that will surprise anyone. Now people already accused me that my selection for the chief of police was very surprising, that I did not you know engage them. Sometimes, you know, you have to you know, you have to make decisions and a split a moment and, but my I try to be as transparent, I try to be accessible. I try to be as open as possible.
Ben Kittelson 49:07
Awesome, awesome. So we have one other tradition on the podcast is we, we ask our guests, if you could be the Gov Love DJ, what song would you pick as the exit music for this episode?
Marlon Brown 49:19
Alright, so Do I get to scratch and bebop and everything as well?
Ben Kittelson 49:22
Yeah, you could do that.
Marlon Brown 49:25
So, um, you know, I I’m gonna give you two. One is very inspirational. I, you know, listen to contemporary gospel, a lot of times for inspiration, and there’s a young lady called Bri Babineaux that has a song called Oceans. And I’ll tell you the reason that I like that song because one of the verses says that you know, that you’ll keep your eyes above the waves when the ocean rises. And so when when the waves are coming at me, I gotta make sure to keep my eyes above, you know above the waves as the ocean rises. And then the other one is, you know, you probably get a kick out of this. It’s a sound by McFadden and Whitehead call Ain’t No Stopping Us Now. And I hope nothing is stopping us as we move forward with this organization and trying to try to get things done for the city of Sarasota.
Ben Kittelson 50:24
Awesome, awesome. We’ll get we’ll get those queued up. Mr. Brown that ends our episode for today. Thank you so much for coming on and having a talk with me and sharing your expertise and experience. I really appreciate it.
Marlon Brown 50:35
I appreciate having me on the show, Ben. And again, anytime you need me to come back on the show. Just reach out to me.
Ben Kittelson 50:44
We’ll do so in about a year we’ll come back and do like, we’ll talk about all the stuff you were trying to get through.
Marlon Brown 50:51
To check it.
Ben Kittelson 50:52
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