County administrator suggests in-depth discussion in early January 2019
Prompted by a situation that occurred that morning (see the related story in this issue), the Sarasota County commissioners agreed on Nov. 27 to hold a future, in-depth discussion regarding potential changes in how they conduct the Open to the Public portions of their meetings.
The board members were unable to begin consideration of the business items on their Nov. 27 agenda until almost an hour after the meeting started, primarily because 15 people had signed up to talk about issues related to the board’s May 2016 vacation of North Beach Road on Siesta Key.
Commissioner Charles Hines broached the topic of Open to the Public procedures as the board members provided their individual reports to their colleagues at the end of their Nov. 27 morning session.
When a lot of people show up to comment on an item that the board is not scheduled to discuss that day, Hines said, they “potentially knock off the whole rest of our agenda.”
Chair Nancy Detert “did a good job this morning,” Hines added, of getting the meeting back on track. Nonetheless, he continued, “We have a schedule. There’s [only] so much time set on that agenda for Open to the Public.”
Hines said he thought the period was supposed to last no longer than 15 minutes, even though the board does not enforce that. (The Nov. 27 agenda did not include a time restriction other than a 3-minute limit per speaker.)
The Open to the Public notation on board agendas says, “This time is reserved for persons desiring to comment before the Board on items not scheduled for a Public Hearing.”
Before any of his colleagues joined the board, Hines continued, he sat through one commission meeting with three hours of Open to the Public comments on a proposed ban on retail sales of pets. As a result, he said, the board was able to handle only one item of business on that morning’s agenda.
In some cases — as with a later item on the Nov. 27 agenda — applicants seeking commission approval of a request have paid attorneys and engineers to represent them, Hines added. If the project team members were scheduled for a morning presentation and ended up having to return in the afternoon because of a belabored Open to the Public session, he said, the applicant would end up with higher consulting and/or attorney’s bills.
In Charlotte County, Hines pointed out, the commission conducts an Open to the Public session at the end of each regular meeting. Perhaps, he said, the Sarasota County board should impose a rule saying that if all speakers have not been heard before an established time limit has been reached, anyone who still wishes to make comments will have to wait until the end of the board’s business items.
Hines also voiced frustration about people feeling, as he put it, that if “they hijack meetings,” the commissioners will feel obligated to make policy decisions in accord with what the speakers are seeking. “In my opinion, that hurts the advocacy of [their] position.”
Chair Detert concurred with Hines in regard to the fairness of the process for people who have scheduled agenda items, especially those who have paid attorneys to represent them.
Municipal boards, she noted, also have been contending recently with groups taking over meetings on topics not on the agenda.
(This fall, a number of speakers concerned about red tide dominated more than one County Commission Open to the Public session, as well as public comment periods provided by the Sarasota City Commission and the Venice City Council.)
Anyone who wishes to address an item not on the agenda, Detert added, “should go at the end [of the meeting. Otherwise,] everybody has to sit here and listen to the people that aren’t on the agenda when [they] areon the agenda.”
The only other way to control Open to the Public is to impose a shorter speaking time, she continued, and a Florida Statute makes that questionable. Detert noted that some jurisdictions have tried to set a 2-minute limit.
Commissioner Alan Maio did point out that the only opportunity people have to address discussion items on agendas — when public testimony is not considered — is during Open to the Public. Those speakers should have top priority, he indicated. Then anyone else who wished to address the board could do so as time permitted in the morning, Maio said. If time ran out, they could wait until all the county business had been conducted.
Detert asked whether her colleagues felt it would be fair to ask any person who puts in a card for Open to the Public, who is not planning to address an item on the agenda, to wait until the end of the meeting to speak.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler responded that he would find that helpful. Then, as soon as the meeting concluded, he could start to follow up on issues they had raised, including scheduling time with the appropriate county staff to learn more background and undertaking research on his own.
Since every speaker has to fill out a card with contact information, Detert suggested he might, at times, want to phone a speaker to ask the person to meet with him.
Timing of a longer board discussion
Detert noted that she would be attending the Florida Association of Counties (FAC) conference in Tampa later in the week. She added that she probably would bring up the issue with commissioners there, to learn how their boards handle Open to the Public.
Hines, too, said he was planning to be at the FAC meeting and would take the opportunity to do the same. Additionally, he told his colleagues, the Sarasota County Commission could ask that staff research the Open to the Public practices of other Charter counties.
Hines proposed discussing changes to Open to the Public when the board holds its annual retreat, set for Dec. 7 this year. Detert agreed.
However, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis cautioned the commissioners that their retreat agenda already is full, so he did not think they would have as much time as they might anticipate for the topic.
Leigh Sprimont, who manages Commission Services for the county, has been researching updates on other issues to bring to the board after the start of 2019, Lewis added. Perhaps a general discussion about Open to the Public could be included on the commission’s Jan. 3, 2019 regular meeting agenda, he suggested.
No board member objected to that idea.