Incidents occur early during Sept. 19 meeting
On Sept. 19, Sarasota Mayor Erik Arroyo took a step that led to the scrapping from the agenda for that day’s meeting the presentations that two of his colleagues had planned, which were noted as Changes to the Order of the Day.
The presentations were listed as pertaining to “Comprehensive Plan Text Amendments.” Commissioners Ahearn-Koch and Hagen Brody had requested the time to address their colleagues; Ahearn-Koch noted that she and Brody each would be limited to 7 minutes.
Ultimately, Vice Mayor Kyle Battie and Brody supported Arroyo’s idea for removing the items from the agenda.
In the aftermath of that vote, however, Brody and City Manager Marlon Brown accused Ahearn-Koch of threatening Brown. That led to a motion — which Ahearn-Koch made — expressing full confidence in Brown. It passed on a 5-0 vote.
After City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs read the changes to the agenda, as part of the normal course of commission meetings, Arroyo asked for a vote on whether to let Ahearn-Koch and Brody proceed.
Their presentations, Arroyo said, “are substantially similar to everything we’re going to be listening to already today …” He was referring to a proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment that city Planning Department staff had crafted in an effort to spur the development of more affordable housing units in the city, plus related ordinances.
Brody told his colleagues, “This is going to be a challenging next couple of meetings and into the future [with more hearings coming up on affordable housing proposals]. And I think that, you know, really setting some guardrails and some guidelines and not abusing the agenda request system” is the better approach.
Commissioner Liz Alpert said she would support a motion to allow the commissioners’ presentations that day; yet, she added, “I don’t think this is a good precedent to establish,” having city commissioners offer remarks to their colleagues on controversial issues. “I think we’re just going to run down a rabbit hole, doing that.”
“I believe the rabbit hole would start today,” Arroyo told her.
The presentations, he added, also would create confusion for the public. Arroyo noted that the board members had received “numerous emails” from people who did not understand why multiple, different conversations about the same issue were included on the agenda.
Ahearn-Koch explained that she had met with City Manager Brown days before the Sept. 19 agenda was to be released, requesting that her presentation be on the regular agenda. Therefore, it should have been included when the document was published on Sept. 8, she added. “Mine is not officially a Change to the Order of the Day,” she said.
Brown indicated that he was expecting Ahearn-Koch to provide materials to him for her item. When none came, he indicated that he figured she no longer wished to make the presentation.
Ahearn-Koch acknowledged that the situation was one of miscommunication.
“We’re going to be speaking on this pretty much all day, anyway,” Vice Mayor Kyle Battie pointed out of the agendas focus on the city’s policies and regulations regarding affordable housing. “It’s just like beating a dead horse,” he added of the commissioners’ presentations. “I’m not supporting that.”
Given the anticipated length of the regular agenda items, Battie added, the commissioners could be in Chambers “till 4:30 in the morning,” if Ahearn-Koch’s and Brody’s presentations were allowed to proceed.
When Brody made his motion to eliminate the presentations from the agenda, Arroyo seconded it.
“I really strongly object to this,” Ahearn-Koch said. “I submitted this item well before the [agenda publication] deadline … so this should not be a Change to the Order of the Day. … I am really shocked by this.”
She added, “I spent the entire weekend preparing my 6 minutes and 59 seconds. I would say I put probably 20 hours into this, and I’m deeply offended that this action is being taken.”
She stressed that the state’s open meetings law prevents the commissioners from speaking to each other outside of meetings, including the sharing of new information one of them may have read on a topic.
“This is the only way to do that,” she said, referring to dialogue at the dais. Her topic, she emphasized, “is completely separate” from the hearings on the ordinances. “I am deeply offended by this commission silencing not only my voice but the community’s voice.”
“My understanding is this is about affordable housing … in general,” Brody responded. “There’s no reason why you can’t do whatever you’re trying to do during the [affordable housing] agenda items,” Brody told Ahearn-Koch, adding that allowing her and his presentations to go forward is “going to set a terrible precedent.”
“My presentation has nothing to do with affordable housing, Commissioner Brody, not in the least, so I don’t know how you would have gotten that impression,” Ahearn-Koch told him. “What I have to say is not involved with the other five [agenda] items.”
Then she reiterated her earlier point — that she had submitted her request to City Manager Brown before the agenda publication deadline and confirmed it again with him before that deadline. “There was clearly confusion between the city manager and I,” she added. “I was shocked when the agenda came out and my item wasn’t on there.”
“What is it about?” Battie asked about her presentation.
“It’s regarding the Comprehensive Plan,” Ahearn-Koch replied.
Vice Mayor Battie did ask for clarification about Ahearn-Koch’s request for her item to be on the agenda before the document was published.
City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs replied that she had no way of knowing what Ahearn-Koch had discussed with City Manager Brown, but the City Auditor and Clerk’s Office did not receive the request from Ahearn-Koch until after the agenda had been released.
Alpert pointed out, “In deference to the time that Commissioner Ahearn-Koch has spent to prepare,” she should be allowed to proceed with her presentation. Nonetheless, Alpert reiterated her earlier remark: “I just don’t want this to be a precedent …”
Arroyo maintained that every commissioner still would have ample time that day to make remarks on the various agenda items related to affordable housing.
At one point during the discussion, Ahearn-Koch noted that she and her colleagues had spent more debating the removal of her presentation from the agenda than she would have taken in making her formal remarks.
“I implore the commission to vote in favor of [Brody’s motion],” Arroyo said.
When Ahearn-Koch tried to make another comment, Arroyo told her, “You’ve already spoken twice to [the motion].”
“Commissioner Brody spoke three times,” Ahearn-Koch replied. “Clearly, my voice is not as valued as the other voices at this table. … I get that loud and clear.”
When Arroyo called for the vote, Brody’s motion passed, with Ahearn-Koch and Alpert in the minority.
Facing City Manager Brown, Ahearn-Koch said, “Congratulations.”
“Be respectful,” Brody told Ahearn-Koch.
The alleged threat
After two proclamations and recognition of the city’s Employee of the Month and Team of the Month for September, City Manager Brown addressed Arroyo. “This is very difficult,” Brown said before requesting a vote of confidence or no confidence from the commissioners.
“When I have a commissioner threatening me at the dais,” Brown continued, “I believe it is time for the commission to make a statement” regarding its support of him, or lack thereof. “If there’s no support, I’ll get up and leave.”
Again, he said the vote was necessary because of the threat from a commissioner.
Ahearn-Koch immediately made a motion to keep Brown on as city manager. “Full confidence,” she said.
Alpert seconded it.
Brody asked to comment on the motion, “just because I heard the threat that Commissioner Ahearn-Koch said to the city manager.”
“Which was what?” Ahearn-Koch asked him.
“It was, ‘I will not forget this,’ ” Brody responded.
“I said that to myself,” Ahearn-Koch told Brody, facing him.
“Yeah, and everybody could hear it,” Brody said. “It’s inappropriate.” Brody added that Arroyo’s request for the vote on the Changes to the Order of the Day “was the right thing to do. I would have voted to strip those [presentations] off the agenda,” regardless of whether staff had listed Ahearn-Koch’s on the original agenda, Brody continued. The meeting needed to be run tightly, he said, “for the community’s benefit.”
“Who said what is irrelevant,” Brody pointed out, referring to Ahearn-Koch’s and Brown’s comments about her request for the presentation.
“I have full confidence in our city manager,” Brody said. “He’s got a tough job, and I think times like this show just how tough it can be, but he does a fantastic job.”
“For the record, I was not threatening you,” Ahearn-Koch told Brown, facing him.
“You turned to me and said, ‘Congratulations; I will not forget,’ ” Brown responded.
Ahearn-Koch explained that she was putting away papers when she said to herself, “I will not forget this.”
She added to her colleagues, “This was a most disturbing moment for me,” referring to Arroyo’s earlier call for the vote on eliminating her and Brody’s presentations.
Then, turning to Brody, she asked why he had added his item to the agenda.
“To respond to whatever you were going to say!” Brody replied.
When she tried to reply, Brody interrupted her. “I’m speaking,” she told Brody.
“What I don’t agree with is threatening the city manager,” Brody said.
Arroyo banged the gavel, saying the commissioners could speak to the motion.
“Just to be crystal clear,” Ahearn-Koch said, “I did not threaten the city manager. … And I stand by the fact that I will not forget this.”
She also pointed out that this was the third or fourth time she had put an item on the agenda only to see it removed. “And I was doing this to inform this commission, to communicate with this commission, something that I have discovered that I wanted to share with you all. You don’t know what my presentation was about. Well, now you never will,” she continued, “because, clearly, you don’t want to hear what I have to say.”
Arroyo directed her to speak to the motion.
“I am speaking to the motion,” she replied.
She told Brody that she felt his presentation “was game playing.”
Turning once again to Brown, Ahearn-Koch said, “I have all the confidence in the world in you. You have served our city well,” along with city residents and the commissioners. “I have known you since the week you were hired.”
At times they have disagreed on topics, Ahearn-Koch continued as she addressed Brown, but she pointed out that he had “always behaved professionally.”
“We can see this is a very contentious topic,” Vice Mayor Battie said when Arroyo asked whether Battie wished to offer any comments on the motion.
Referring to what had happened that morning, Battie added, “It’s like shameful, to be honest with you. … None of us are perfect. … I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit and waste my time trying to … belittle another human being …”
Battie then praised Brown, saying Brown goes “far above and beyond” to ensure that the commissioners have all the information they need to do their jobs.
“Hopefully,” Battie continued, “we can, uh, proceed in a more, professional, uh, manner that speaks to fairness with some level of decorum.”
Arroyo said the commissioners have “the utmost respect” for Brown, adding, “We are here to protect you. … We don’t want you to feel like you’re attacked by [an] individual.”
The motion expressing full confidence in Brown passed unanimously.
During the affordable housing public hearings that day, a few of the speakers remarked on the effort to prevent Ahearn-Koch from making her presentation, describing it as appearing to have been orchestrated. They admonished the three male commissioners for their actions.