Too few commissioners support her proposal for research by Office of the County Attorney
Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert has failed to win sufficient support from her board colleagues to get an opinion from the Office of the County Attorney on whether the commission could require candidates for office to identify themselves as such before making public comments at meetings.
Detert raised the issue on June 7, after Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino, a candidate for the District 2 County Commission seat, addressed the commissioners that morning during the Open to the Public comment period. Cosentino joined five other individuals in urging the commissioners not to place on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot two amendments that the Sarasota County Charter Review Board has approved. Those amendments would impose new restrictions on citizen-initiated referenda regarding Charter amendments.
Cosentino was wearing a nametag that showed he is a candidate for office, but he made no mention of that fact in the 3 minutes board rules allowed him to speak.
“I think it’s disingenuous or misleading to the public,” Detert said, “to have people … get up there and say things, and they’re candidates for these offices. It really constitutes a free ad for them,” she continued. “If you’re a declared, filed candidate, I think it should be our policy” that they make that clear, Detert told her colleagues.
“I think it’s important to the public to know how much credence to give to what [they] have to say and what [their] maybe hidden agenda might be.”
“As we saw this morning,” she pointed out, “anybody can get up here and say anything they want to — and we’re fine with that.”
Speakers who addressed the Charter Review Board amendments “asked us to be honest,” Detert reminded her colleagues. “Well, I would like for everyone to just be honest. Declared candidates, I think, should state that at the beginning …”
If the other commissioners agreed, Detert said, the Office of the County Attorney could research whether the commission could implement a policy to that effect.
Chair Alan Maio noted that, with commission consensus, the Office of the County Attorney could undertake that assignment.
Then Commissioner Christian Ziegler said, “I understand the concern, and what [Detert says] is a very valid situation.” At times, Ziegler added, comments by candidates “do turn into a little 3-minute campaign [speech].”
However, Ziegler continued, he did not want the commissioners to start “pre-qualifying and excluding people from public comment. … These people are citizens as well. And I may get attacked more than anyone else on this board,” Ziegler said, but members of the public have their right to their 3 minutes to address the commissioners.
As a compromise, he suggested that a commissioner take the opportunity to identify a speaker as a candidate, if the speaker does not mention that fact.
Then Ziegler asked, “If we’re running for re-election,” do commissioners have to say that? “I think that’s a little bit of a slippery slope.”
“It’s not a disqualifier,” Detert responded of her proposal. “Nobody’s going to drag you out of the room,” she added. “It’s a declaration, not a disqualifier.”
“We’ve never dragged anybody out of this room,” Detert pointed out. “We always have freedom here.”
“We’ve had people that personally attack us,” Ziegler replied. “We sit here. We listen” without responding. “It’s going to be hard to police,” he continued, in terms of whether someone is speaking in a personal capacity or as a candidate.
Therefore, Ziegler added, he opposed Detert’s proposal for the Office of the County Attorney assignment.
Chair Maio then noted, “Commissioner Ziegler of late has taken most of the beating [from the public].” Maio added that he “always has been very proud of this commission. Whoever wants to speak gets to speak. … Pretty much we ask you not to spit, swear, throw things, but other than that, say what you like.”
He concurred with Ziegler. “Let’s not go down that path.”
However, Commissioner Michael Moran noted that when Charles Hines was still a county commissioner, Hines used to ask speakers who identified themselves as presidents of homeowner associations if they were speaking for themselves or for the organizations. “It was very meaningful,” Moran said, indicating that many such speakers were not representing the homeowner associations but wanted to imply that they were.
Moran added that he understood Detert’s point.
Ziegler then told his colleagues that he has had members of the public congratulate him for letting speakers criticize him by name. “Citizens have a right to disagree with [the commissioners],” Ziegler said. “I don’t want to do anything different. … I don’t want to be accused of trying to play games with public comment here.”
With no other board comments, Maio indicated to Chief Deputy County Attorney Karl Senkow, who was filling in on the dais that day for County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht, that it he saw no need for the Office of the County Attorney to undertake the research Detert had proposed.