After Sarasota vice mayor fails to persuade Commissioner Battie to side with him and mayor, majority of commissioners approve rules change to provide for attendance at meetings virtually or by phone

Mayor backs away from call for formal language in Rules of Procedure to impose time limits on agenda items

The Sarasota city commissioners sit in session on Feb. 1, with Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch (above right) participating remotely. News Leader image

Decisions on two more proposed changes to the Sarasota City Commission’s Rules of Procedure proved unanimous on Feb. 1, as the board members renewed a discussion that began on Jan. 19.

However, the vote on the third issue — regarding commissioners’ virtual or telephonic participation in meetings, as long as that does not conflict with state law — resulted in a 3-2 split.

It followed efforts by Vice Mayor Erik “E” Arroyo to try to persuade Commissioner Kyle Scott Battie to side with Arroyo and Mayor Hagen Brody in opposing the proposed amendment.

Commissioner Liz Alpert made the motion, and Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch seconded it.

Officially, the new section of the Rules of Procedure, V.E., says, “City Commission members may attend and participate remotely in all meetings either virtually or by telephone in accordance with state law.”

Two other parts of Section V were amended to provide for attendance virtually or by phone.

When Brody broached those changes during the Feb. 1 meeting, Ahearn-Koch, Alpert and Battie immediately voiced support for them.

However, Arroyo reprised some of the comments he made on Jan. 19, referencing Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Executive Order 20-69, which DeSantis issued in March 2020 after the novel coronavirus pandemic began. Arroyo also pointed to an opinion DeSantis had sought from Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, which DeSantis referenced in that Executive Order.

This is the section of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Executive Order 20-69 that Vice Mayor Erik Arroyo referenced on Jan. 19 and again on Feb. 1. Image courtesy State of Florida

The governor has said that elected boards should return to in-person meetings, Arroyo stressed again on Feb. 1. The City Commission should abide by that, he added. Further, Arroyo said, the Sarasota City Charter calls for commissioners to be physically present for meetings.

Brody also voiced opposition to those proposed changes in the Rules of Procedure, noting that, at some point, the pandemic will end. He further concurred with Arroyo: “I don’t think that [the amendment] is in line with the state law …”

Brody said he believed the changes would violate the state’s Sunshine Law, which regulates transparency in regard to public meetings and public records.

“We’ve been close to not having quorums,” Brody also noted, as Arroyo had earlier in the discussion.

However, Brody added, “I’m OK continuing virtual public input into the future …”

Commissioner Ahearn-Koch asked City Attorney Robert Fournier for clarification about the legality of the proposed changes that would enable commissioners to continue participating by virtual technology or by phone.

“The practice is going to be the same [as it was before the pandemic started],” Fournier replied. Even then, he said, a physical quorum was needed for a meeting to take place, but a commissioner could participate remotely under extraordinary circumstances.

When DeSantis revoked the March 2020 Executive Order, Fournier continued, DeSantis made it clear that having a majority of elected officials present for a meeting was all that was necessary. “I think this is just acknowledging what the situation is,” Fournier added of the proposed changes to the Rules of Procedure, and not conferring any new powers on the commissioners.

City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch participates in the Jan. 4 meeting via remote technology. News Leader image

“In the almost four years that I’ve been on this commission,” Ahearn-Koch pointed out, “I’ve missed exactly one meeting.” That was when she was ill, she said.

She further noted that, since the majority of the commissioners had agreed to adopt a new meeting schedule, with sessions on the first and third Monday and Tuesday nights, some members might still wish to attend Florida League of Cities meetings, which likely would conflict with City Commission sessions. Thus, Ahearn-Koch explained, the only way to do both is to be able to participate in the commission meetings by virtual meeting technology or telephone.

“Attending virtually is also something I don’t enjoy doing, but we are in a pandemic,” Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues. “I do have at-risk people in my family, so I’m being as cautious and as safe as possible. I hope that there’s understanding for that.”

Since Brody became mayor in November 2020, succeeding Ahearn-Koch upon vote of the majority of his colleagues, Ahearn-Koch has used Zoom to participate in the sessions.

Commissioner Alpert said she had planned to make comments very similar to Ahearn-Koch’s. Prior to the start of the pandemic, Alpert continued, “Everybody showed up at every meeting.”

She was so ill one time, and coughing constantly, Alpert added, that she participated by phone, as she felt no one would want to be sitting next to her at the dais. “This simply codifies exactly what we’ve been doing,” she noted of the proposed changes.

Each time Brody gave Battie an opportunity to comment on the issue, he voiced his support. The last time, Battie reminded his colleagues that he found out he had COVID-19 the day he was to be sworn into office. Therefore, he continued, virtual participation “served me well.”

Post-COVID, Brody said, he believes every commissioner should be in Chambers at City Hall. He added that he would not support changing the Rules of Procedure.

Arroyo then pointed out, “I’m not saying we’re prohibiting [virtual attendance].” He added that if a commissioner needs to attend via remote technology, the commissioner could request that the other board members allow that. “I don’t think it’s OK for us to amend [the Rules of Procedure],” Arroyo said again.

If the rules were modified, he continued, “I think someday, in the future, it’ll result in a lack of accountability of elected officials.” For example, he said, “a large group of voters” could indicate intent to attend a meeting at City Hall because of concern over an issue, and the commissioners could avoid the voters by attending the session virtually.

City Commissioner Liz Alpert makes a point during a June 15, 2020 discussion, when all the board members were participating in meetings remotely because of the pandemic. File image

“With all due respect, Vice Mayor, a whole commission could not not appear,” Alpert responded. In her five-and-a-half years on the board, she added, she had not seen such action. Having the option of virtual attendance in the rules “doesn’t change anything.”

“When you run for election … you want to do your job, and you want to be there,” Ahearn-Koch said. “I don’t think any elected official wants to hide from the public … I don’t see that as a big danger.

“I would have the utmost confidence going forward … that everyone would do their duty and be present,” Battie added.

Then addressing Battie, Arroyo said, “The [city] Charter provides that we can excuse … some commissioners from not attending physically … If they’re excused by the commission, that’s fine.”

Arroyo stressed, “This is changing our circumstances, making this the rule forever.”

Nonetheless, Battie joined Ahearn-Koch and Alpert in the majority in approving the changes.

The other items

During earlier discussions about proposed amendments regarding the handling of meetings, Brody has stressed his desire to impose time restrictions. On Feb. 1, however, he backed away from calling for specific language in the Rules of Procedureon that point.

City Attorney Fournier explained at the outset of the discussion, “The mayor has the inherent authority to run the meetings and keep things going.”

In response to Brody’s past comments, Fournier’s draft of the amendments included a new line in Section X.C. that said, “The Mayor, as the presiding officer, may set time limits for questions.”

As he did on Jan. 19, Brody told his colleagues that he believes his efforts to prevent meetings from running long are “working well.” Nonetheless, he said, “I am sensitive to some of the concerns that have been raised by, mostly, Commissioner Ahearn-Koch in the past.”
Ahearn-Koch stressed during the Jan. 19 discussion that board members need flexibility in the amount of time they have to ask questions, to provide the best possible service to their constituents.

On Feb. 1, Brody asked City Manager Marlon Brown to explain background on the time management issue.

Brown said he works with Fournier, City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs and the mayor to go through the list of all the items on an upcoming agenda — “even the Consent Agenda items,” he added, referring to routine business matters. The goal, Brown continued, is for them to determine, to the best of their ability, how much time should be allocated to each item. They do take into consideration their expectations for public participation, Brown noted.

After the group arrives at its best estimates, Brown continued, the mayor sends an email to the other commissioners with those estimates.

Given Brown’s experience with the individual commissioners, Brody pointed out, Brown “obviously has a good idea” about how much time each will need for questions on specific items.

Mayor Hagen Brody makes a point during the Nov. 16, 2020 meeting. File image

Brody wanted to delete the proposed time restriction language from the Rules of Procedure, he said, and continue working with Brown and Griggs “to prepare times that can be adopted by the commission at the beginning of [every] meeting …”

Brody stressed, “I’m not really trying to cut anybody off [during questioning]. It’s really just about time management in the context of the whole agenda.”

Commissioner Alpert pointed out that taking time to agree on how much time to allocate to public hearings, for example, at the start of each meeting would end up taking even more time.

Therefore, the commissioners finally agreed just to allow the mayor flexibility on how long debates run, depending on points that arise during a particular discussion.

Ahearn-Koch thanked Brody for his concession. “Sometimes,” she said, “it’s really hard to predict where the conversation’s going to go because we’re always given new information at the last minute,” through emails, for example, or speakers’ comments.

Finally, the commissioners voted unanimously to amend the Rules to make it clear that persons who wish to address the board members during the Citizens Input portion of meetings will be allowed to do so only on one meeting day. That is because the Tuesday sessions will be considered an extension of the Monday sessions.