A Sarasota city commissioner using city letterhead without board endorsement must use a disclaimer to that effect, commissioners agree

Issue arose after past Mayor Brody used letterhead — without a board vote — to ask federal judge for leniency for a friend in a national case

The City Commission sits in session on July 5, with Commissioner Hagen Brody absent. News Leader image

Although more discussion may come at a later date, the Sarasota city commissioners agreed unanimously this week that if one of them wishes to use city letterhead to send correspondence on which the full board has not voted, then the letter will include a disclaimer to make that fact clear.

Commissioner Liz Alpert had asked for the topic to be included on the July 5 agenda for the board’s regular meeting.

Commissioner Hagen Brody, who used city letterhead last year to urge a federal judge to be lenient in sentencing one of Brody’s long-time friends in a national case, was not present for the July 5 discussion. City Manager Marlon Brown explained at the outset of the meeting that Brody had a personal matter to address that morning.

When Alpert raised the topic during the board’s regular meeting on May 2, she did not cite any specific examples. However, her action came on the heels of a Sarasota Herald-Tribune column by reporter Chris Anderson about the letter that Brody signed when he was still mayor, in November 2021. Brody took the action the day before newly elected Commissioner Erik Arroyo won a vote of his colleagues to succeed Brody as mayor.

Alpert told Anderson that Brody did not have commission support for the correspondence. Yet, Brody’s Nov. 4, 2021 letter on city letterhead did not include any type of disclaimer to that effect.

In that correspondence, Brody asked for the “thoughtful consideration” U.S. District Court Judge Nathaniel Gorton, of the District of Massachusetts, in regard to sentencing Brody’s friend, Mark Riddell, with whom Brody attended Sarasota High School. Riddell had been identified as a key figure in the “Varsity Blues” scandal.

This is the letter that then-Mayor Hagen Brody sent to the federal judge in November 2021. Image courtesy U.S. District Court System

While an instructor at IMG Academy in Manatee County, Riddell began traveling around the country to take college entrance exams — or to correct them — for students whose parents were conspiring with athletic coaches to get their children into prominent universities.

Riddell pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and one count of money laundering, court records note.

Gorton ended up ordering Riddell to serve four months in prison, plus two months of supervised release. Riddell also was fined $1,000 and ordered to forfeit $239,449.42, court records show.

As the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts explained, “Athletic coaches from Yale, Stanford, [the University of Southern California], Wake Forest and Georgetown, among others, [were] implicated, as well as parents and exam administrators.”

On March 7, The Wall Street Journal reported that the scandal resulted in 50 guilty pleas over nearly three years.

Mayor Erik Arroyo. News Leader image

During the May City Commission discussion, Mayor Erik Arroyo pointed out that a supermajority of the board — four out of five commissioners — had to agree to correspondence before one of them could send a letter that indicated to the recipient that it represented the view of the entire board.

Brody objected to Alpert’s call that day for a disclaimer on correspondence on city letterhead when the full board had not voted in support of it.

Brody said such a disclaimer was “not necessary,” and he called Alpert’s proposal “kind of juvenile, honestly.”

Settling on a disclaimer, at least for the time being

On July 5, Alpert launched the discussion by telling her colleagues, “I don’t want to belabor this, but I firmly believe you shouldn’t use city letterhead for personal use. … It should be for city business.”
She added, “I’ve sent [letters] in support of people for getting into law school … but I didn’t send [them] on city letterhead.”

However, Alpert continued, if a commissioner wanted to send a letter on a topic on which the full board had not voted, a simple disclaimer could be used. She suggested that the disclaimer make it clear to the recipient that the commissioner was taking a personal position on the issue and that that position did not represent the view of the full commission.

“That seems like a very simple rule to follow,” Alpert said.

Then City Manager Brown asked, “Would the commission be supportive of each commissioner having their own letterhead?” City staff easily could obtain letterhead for each member of the board, he pointed out.

Alpert told him that she felt such an expense would be unnecessary, as the minimum number of sheets of letterhead the city could buy likely would be 500.

“I completely agree with what the sentiments are,” Arroyo said of Alpert’s proposal about the disclaimer. “I’m very in favor of that language for a disclaimer,” he added, “which I try to put on everything anyway.”

Commissioner Liz Alpert. File image

However, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch voiced support for Brown’s idea about letterhead for each commissioner. “There may be times when, for example, a commissioner wants to recommend an intern” who has worked at City Hall and who is applying to a college or seeking a job. “It’s not necessarily city business,” Ahearn-Koch pointed out, even though the commissioner knew the intern by virtue of the commissioner’s public service.

Alpert responded that she felt such a letter could be considered city business. Conversely, she said, “If it’s your friend or something else that has nothing to do with the city, then it’s not [city business].”

Vice Mayor Kyle Battie noted that city letterhead carries more weight than personal stationery.

“I agree with the vice mayor,” Arroyo added. “I believe a disclaimer would solve our problems,” he said.

Then Ahearn-Koch suggested a further discussion of the issue during a commission workshop — though not as the primary item on a workshop agenda.

“Perhaps,” Arroyo replied. “I’m fine with the disclaimer, honestly.”

City Manager Brown told the commissioners, “We’ll use a disclaimer until we come up with a better solution.”
“That solves it,” Alpert responded.