City Commission ‘Rules of Procedure’ change forbids candidates for local, state and federal offices to identify themselves as such

Mayor Alpert had sought amendment, after weeks of her District 2 opponent identifying himself as a candidate before making statements on issues

Mayor Liz Alpert. Image from her 2020 campaign website

On March 18, after weeks of hearing Ron Kashden of Laurel Park, her opponent for the District 2 seat, identify himself as a candidate for City Commission, Mayor Liz Alpert won the support of her colleagues to direct the city attorney to draft an amendment to the board’s Rules of Procedure.

Alpert wanted to see a provision that would prohibit candidates from identifying themselves as such in addressing the commission.

It took about 25 minutes — mostly for discussion — during the board members’ regular meeting on April 15 for the majority of them to approve the amendment.

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and Commissioner Erik Arroyo ended up opposing the motion that Commissioner Debbie Trice made to adopt the language in the amendment read by Deputy City Attorney Michael Connolly.

Although Ahearn-Koch cast a “No” vote, a suggestion she made for tweaking the new language was approved. That modified XI.I.G of the rules to ensure that the prohibition would be applied to candidates for federal office, as well.

Formally, the beginning of the new version of XI.I.G. states, “Persons at the City Commission table or attending virtually shall not identify themselves as candidates for office or speak about their campaign activities.”

Deputy City Attorney Connolly pointed out that the rule will govern the actions of incumbent commissioners, as well. “In other words,” he said, “what applies on that side of the table applies equally on this side of the table.” (As usual, he was seated on the side of the dais with the board members.)

The amendment puts it this way: “For purposes of this rule, the term ‘persons at the City Commission table’ shall include everyone seated at the Commission table, including incumbent Commissioners who are candidates for office.”

Even before the April 15 vote, the ordinance prohibited persons sitting at the commission table, or those attending virtually, from wearing “articles of clothing, hats or buttons that express support for or opposition to the candidacy of any individual for … office.”

A desire to prevent use of the commission as ‘a political tool’

No sooner had Ahearn-Koch proposed adding “federal” to the list of affected candidates than Arroyo announced his plans to oppose the amendment. He was against any measure that made the Rules of Procedure “more restrictive in any way, he said.

At that point, City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs interjected that she wanted “to put on the record” that a rumor circulating in the community that her office was opposed to the amendment “is not true. We don’t actually care.”

Ahearn-Koch also suggested a second option. The amendment could be crafted, she said, to allow persons at the City Commission table, or those attending virtually, to choose whether to identify themselves as candidates. Nonetheless, she stressed, “You may not speak about your campaign activities. … I don’t want the commission meetings to be a political tool, for sure,” Ahearn-Koch added.

The ”may” or “may not” option would be what she characterized as “sort of middle ground.”

Ron Kashden is the candidate who has filed to run against Mayor Liz Alpert. Contributed photo

Commissioner Trice objected, saying she believed the board members should “be taking a position one way or the other”: Either all candidates should identify themselves as such, or none should.

If the commissioners chose to go along with Ahearn-Koch’s suggestion, Mayor Alpert informed her colleagues, “Each time we [incumbents] speak on an issue, we’re going to say, ‘By the way, we’re running for re-election.’ I don’t think we want to go down that path,” Alpert added.

City Manager Marlon Brown told the board members that he could not recall any of them announcing themselves as candidates when they were running for their seats. “I don’t know why that is a trend now, that somebody has to come up and say, ‘I’m a candidate,’” he added.

Ahearn-Koch responded that she could not recall any incumbent commissioners announcing from the dais that they were running for re-election.

Again, she emphasized that her goal was to prevent “this room from being a political tool,” referring to the Commission Chambers in City Hall.

When Trice asked about Arroyo’s opposition to the amendment, he explained, “I think the rule as it stands, which is no campaigning in the Chamber, is fine. We just need to enforce it.”

He said that he had not recalled an issue with City Commission candidates in the past. However, Arroyo continued, some Sarasota County Commission candidates had announced themselves as such when they were vying for seats in the 2022 election.

City resident Jose Fernandez ended up addressing the board members on the topic, though he said he originally had had not planned to do so.

“To me,” he told the commissioners, “There’s a big difference between disclosing that you are a candidate and campaigning. … To say, ‘I’m Joe Smith. I’m a candidate for City Commission’ or what-have-you — it’s nothing but just informing the people,” Fernandez pointed out.

Jose Fernandez addresses the City Commission on April 15. News Leader image

Then he continued, “Let’s be honest: Besides the few of us that got no life, that are here all the time, I’m sure there is nobody watching this on TV — or damn few people watching this on TV. Talk about a mountain or a molehill.”

Fernandez added, “Disclosure is not campaigning, as far as I can tell. Now you come in here with a shirt, hat, Batman costume, whatever — maybe that’s different. That’s not what we’re talking about here; [we are] talking about Ron Kashden.”

Kashden has been the first person to identify himself as a candidate since Martin Hyde, a business owner who ran for various elected positions, took the same approach before he moved out of town, Fernandez noted.

“And I think he was trying to do it for transparency,” Alpert replied.

Alpert reiterated her comment, “If somebody is saying, ‘I’m a candidate’ each time [that person appears before the commission], I’m going to be saying I’m a candidate for re-election each time. I just think it’s not a good idea,” she added, to have anyone identify himself or herself as a candidate.

Commissioner Kyle Battie acknowledged that he had found it annoying “sometimes when people” — such as Hyde, he noted — “have come and used [their identification as candidates] as a tool. … You don’t want to get in this whole sort of tit for tat thing,” he said.

“I think on this side of the table there is a decorum that should be had,” Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues. She stressed her opposition to persons speaking about campaign activities, but noted her support, again, for a candidate who wishes to disclose that fact for transparency’s sake.

She concurred with Arroyo’s concern about “limiting people’s speech. I think it gets into a slippery slope there. … I really don’t think it’s been a big problem because I think people are just saying, ‘I’m a candidate’ … but they are not saying, ‘And you need to vote for me …’ ” Ahearn-Koch added.

Commissioner Trice alluded to the potential of candidates also giving “a dirty look to the person they are running against” on the board.

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch. File image

Again, Alpert expressed her opposition to individuals identifying themselves as candidates. “I don’t think we want to go there.”

Finally, Trice made the motion to adopt the amendment as drafted by the City Attorney’s Office, with the incorporation of “federal” office candidates, as Ahearn-Koch had suggested.

Battie seconded it.

Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues, “I’m very torn about this one.”

Trice was, as well, she said, but “I think we need to be clear, and making this change will be clear.”

Then Ahearn-Koch ended up joining Arroyo in voting “No.”