By Karen Christie
I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Sarasota’s Mayor, Suzanne Atwell. This interview will, I think, provide WSRQ’s listeners with a sense of who our mayor is, and will help them appreciate the energetic and enthusiastic way in which Mayor Atwell fulfills her duties while serving in this significant role in our community. City of Sarasota Mayor Atwell
Her educational background:
Mayor Atwell discussed the fact that she is the product of a “non-traditional” higher education. She attended several colleges before graduating from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. There, she majored in the field of Human Development. After graduating , she went on to study Clinical Psychology, because she wanted to be a psychotherapist. She earned her Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from Marymount College in Arlington, Virginia.
How she decided to run for politics:
She went on to explain that her first time running for office was when she lived in Foxboro, Massachusetts. She wanted to be a library trustee, but in order to be a trustee, you had to run for office. She thought that would be the only time she would try to pursue politics. As a psychotherapist, however, she got to meet people from a wide variety of fields. Through her experiences as a member of the Board of Directors and the Family of Law Connection Board, for instance, she was able to meet people in the social services field, the legal field, and the political arena. These connections enabled her to support some of the candidates. It was then and there that she thought, “I’m arming myself with some of the best and the brightest people that work, live, and play in this community.” She knew she wanted to try and run for office where she could use some of her knowledge from her experiences as a psychotherapist.
She pointed out the fact that when it comes to politics, her psychology skills really helped. You learn how to deal with people, how to make decisions, and how to live life just like, which are some of the same things a psychotherapist deals with on a daily basis. As she puts it, “To me, deciding to run for office is like a culmination of everything I’ve done here as a citizen, as a professional, and as a volunteer, and now I can put it into making policy.”
Living in Sarasota:
Mayor Atwell has been a resident of Sarasota since 1994. She first worked as a psychotherapist at Coastal Recovery, then Jewish Family and Children’s Service, and after that, she decided to go into private practice. After leaving the field of private practice in 2004, Mayor Atwell ran for City Commissioner. Prior to that, she got to know former mayor Kelly Kirschner, and she worked to help him get elected. Mayor Atwell did go on to state that even though the duties as a City Commissioner are a full-time job, she does keep up her license in psychology.
Mayor Atwell described the many tasks and responsibilities associated with the role of mayor. She replied that she is someone who loves to go “out and about.” She said that when you serve as Mayor, you get numerous invitations to events as varied as giving keys to the city, or reading proclamations. Mayor Atwell enjoys her role as an ambassador to Sarasota, which means that she will “speak to the community… And to me, what that does is it bridges sometimes the often-perceived gap between the citizenry and City Hall.”
As a representative of Sarasota, Mayor Atwell looks into how to meet the needs of the city. For instance, she could be asked to go to a gala or banquet and read a proclamation, or she could give a speech to a neighborhood group. In order to serve as Mayor, it’s also important to have relationships with supporting venues. Here, for instance, the Van Wezel is “…ours.” She goes on to say that they are “…very proud of what’s going on there right now, so if I’m asked to do something, I do it very willingly and I enjoy it.” She has even taken golf lessons at Bobby Jones, another venue Sarasota is proud to own. Mayor Atwell later stated that she loves to “stick with things in the city to show that I highly respect our staff, and all the city entities that we have.”
Areas in Sarasota where you see room for improvement:
She noted in particular that she would like to try to bridge the gaps between the neighborhoods and downtown; in other words, how we would work as one city. She notes that we in Sarasota have a “fabulous urban core.” She gives the examples of Laurel Park and Gillespie Park as some of Sarasota’s unique edged neighborhoods in the community. The Robert Taylor Rec Center in Newtown, for instance, is a great place for kids not only because it’s a gym, but because it could also provide them with spiritual or educational opportunities. Though the rec center is here in the city of Sarasota, Mayor Atwell hopes that it will attract youth from all over the area, not just from our city.
What are some of the city of Sarasota’s strengths, in other words, the “best that Sarasota has to offer:
The Mayor pointed out our city’s “fabulous urban core” as well as its variety of edged neighborhoods. She stressed the fact that the city of Sarasota gives people a choice of where they can live. Perhaps a young family is moving to the area and would like to enroll their children in school. Maybe someone who has retired is looking into moving to Sarasota. In Sarasota, they have a choice whether they would like to move to a neighborhood where people can raise their kids, or if someone wants to live in a condo, the opportunity is right at their fingertips, since Sarasota has a diverse group of places to choose from. Where ever anyone decides to live in Sarasota, they’re only a number of minutes from theaters and the beach. She also emphasized Sarasota as a place that offers something for everyone. Whether you are a child or adult, places like Jungle Gardens or Gee Whiz! are great for kids to go to with their parents or grandparents.
In keeping with current events, my next question was concerned with the 3 to 2 City Commission vote to eliminate the parking meters downtown, a vote where Mayor Atwell was in the minority:
I mentioned that it seemed that many of the merchants in the downtown area felt that they were not having quite as many customers because people were finding it difficult to operate the meters, thus resulting in not nearly as many people shopping downtown. In response to my question, Mayor Atwell explained that she didn’t think it would be a good idea to have the meters removed, simply because the parking meters are a “component of a system,” as she says. She wanted to talk to the manufacturer of the machines and figure out ways to change it, but not remove the system altogether. The meters cost about $500,000 to install , and now it’s costing quite a lot to take them out. She was hoping to keep the meters for longer as a way to analyze which businesses seemed to be most affected by the meter situation.
One last thought:
Mayor Atwell remarked that she loves her job, and loves being Mayor. She notes that since she became Mayor, she has had the chance to meet hundreds of people she otherwise would never have met. She said, for instance, that when you go out and read a proclamation to an organization that appreciates it, “…that’s worth its weight in gold to have a kind of job that I can bring that kind of recognition to the community…” To her, it “bridges the gap that we care about you as citizens here in the city.” Each day as Mayor, she learns more, gets to know more people, and for her, it’s extraordinary to be a part of Sarasota’s community.