On Friday, Nov. 8, the city commissioners of Sarasota unanimously appointed a new mayor, Jen Ahearn-Koch, to replace the previous Mayor Liz Alpert. Elected at-large to the commission in 2017, Ahearn-Koch served as vice mayor last year, setting up a smooth transition to this position. Commissioner Shellie Freeland-Eddie was appointed vice mayor.
In the city of Sarasota, the mayor and vice-mayor are not directly elected by the people, which is uncommon compared to the majority of U.S. municipalities. Instead, Sarasota constituents vote in nonpartisan elections for five city commissioners. Two are elected at-large and three are elected from single-member districts. The position of mayor is ceremonial: they are not granted more power than their fellow commissioners and do not typically hold the position for longer than a year.
Outgoing Mayor Liz Alpert gave a State of the City Address on the day of Ahearn-Koch’s appointment that heavily focused on Sarasota’s growth. According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, the city has grown by 45 percent in almost two decades, while Sarasota County has grown by 238 percent.
“So much of what we’ve been experiencing is due to the pressure of the county’s growth and the strain that puts on our infrastructure,” Alpert said in an interview with the Sarasota Herald Tribune, pointing out the nearly two dozen construction projects initiated or completed during her term as mayor.
Former Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch will have to handle significant growth, battle a chronic shortage of affordable housing and confront homelessness in the city.
In Alpert’s State of the City Address, she emphasized many new initiatives Ahearn-Koch will take responsibility for. Alpert mentioned that Sarasota has developed its first master plan to ensure safer transportation. The plan, deemed “Sarasota in Motion,” will ensure roads, bike lanes and sidewalks are safe for bicyclists and pedestrians. In addition to this plan, the city of Sarasota has created another master plan, costing $300 million, to upgrade local water and sewer treatment systems throughout the next decade. To address affordable housing, Sarasota has established an action strategy that prioritizes a section of city property and allocated nearly $1.5 million from city and county funding to build housing.
“I am just really honored to take this role, and I hope that I still follow the community’s goals,” Ahearn-Koch said in an interview with the Herald Tribune.
As a woman, for Ahearn-Koch to be appointed to a seat previously held by a woman is a rare phenomenon in the United States. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, as of September 2019, only 22 percent of the 1,366 mayoral seats of cities with populations over 30,000 were held by women.
Ahearn-Koch has an extensive background in academia and service. In 1986, she graduated from the American University in Paris with a Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs. She went on to receive her Master of Arts in International Affairs from Columbia University’s Graduate School of International and Public Affairs in 1989. She also holds a Benjamin Franklin diploma from the Institut d’Etudes Politique. Ahearn-Koch served as a marketing consultant for the majority of her professional career.
Within the Sarasota community, Ahearn-Koch has taken on plenty of responsibility. She has served as the president of the Tahiti Park neighborhood association for nearly a decade, served as a neighborhood representative to the Coalition of City neighborhood associations and served on the city of Sarasota planning board in 2015.