Mayor Brody, who advocated for nighttime meetings, cast solitary ‘No’ vote on Sept. 7
It took slightly more than an hour of discussion — with Mayor Hagen Brody commenting at one point that he was trying to change the minds of some of his colleagues.
Nonetheless, on Sept. 7, the Sarasota City Commission voted 4-1 to begin conducting its meetings from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the first and third Mondays of each month. Brody was in the minority.
In making the motion, Commissioner Liz Alpert also called for a 5:30 p.m. start on those days for any city hearing that, by law, must be held after 5 p.m. Further, by consensus, the board members agreed that they want to ensure two opportunities for public comments during every meeting.
Discussion indicated that the public comment periods likely would be at the beginning of both the morning session and the afternoon session, which is akin to the Sarasota County Commission’s meeting protocols.
Alpert also called for a lunch break from noon to 1 p.m., and she agreed to a suggestion from Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch for the board members to evaluate the effects of the changes six months after the new schedule has begun.
The necessary modifications of the City Commission’s Rules of Procedure will be an item for consideration on the board’s Consent Agenda No. 2 for its regular meeting on Sept. 20. Provided the schedule shift wins approval that night, the agenda item says that the change will go into effect beginning with the Oct. 18 City Commission meeting.
The Sept. 20 meeting will begin at 6 p.m. in City Hall.
Difficulties for city workers and a higher expense
At the outset of the Sept. 7 discussion, Alpert told her colleagues, “I put this on the agenda because what’s been happening is this new meeting time is really difficult for staff.”
In February, the City Commission modified its schedule so it would meet from 6 to 10 p.m. on the first and third Mondays and Tuesdays of each month.
Brody requested the change because public hearings were keeping the commissioners, the public and city staff at City Hall until 11 p.m. or 11:30 p.m. on many nights when the board members started their sessions at 1:30 p.m. and then broke for dinner before returning at 6 p.m. on the first and third Mondays.
“Two night meetings back-to-back,” Alpert said on Sept. 7, “is just … not fair to anybody.”
For inclusion in the backup agenda material, Alpert provided her colleagues a list of the meeting schedules for other elected bodies. For examples: The Venice City Council starts its sessions at 9 a.m., as do the Sarasota and Charlotte County commissions; the Bradenton City Council begins at 8:30 a.m.; the North Port Commission, 10 a.m.; and the Longboat Key Town Commission, 1 p.m.
The Cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg also begin their meetings at 9 a.m., with specific types of public hearings conducted at 5:01 p.m.
If multiple municipalities and counties can start their sessions in the morning, Alpert said, “and it works for the general public, which I believe it does, there’s no reason we can’t do that.”
She also pointed to the expense that the City of Sarasota is bearing for staff to be present at the commission’s night meetings: “It’s almost a thousand dollars an hour for every hour after 5 o’clock. … We’re spending $226,000 a year on these meetings that [doesn’t] need to be spent.”
Alpert pointed out that she and her colleagues “tried this experiment,” for which Mayor Brody had advocated, “but it’s really been terribly difficult for staff, and I think we have to consider them.” Staff had indicated to her, she noted, that some employees “have left because of the new schedule.”
At different points during the discussion, given an opportunity to comment, both City Manager Marlon Brown and City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs told the commissioners that they would be happy to see the schedule changed to accommodate 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. meetings twice a month. “We would love that,” Brown said.
Moreover, Alpert pointed out, “I think the public would be much happier.”
Vice Mayor Erik Arroyo and Commissioner Kyle Scott Battie offered support right away for Alpert’s recommendation.
“The $226,000 could pay for other city initiatives,” Arroyo noted.
Before he even started thinking about campaigning for a board seat, Battie said, he believed that “only a certain segment of the population” was participating in the meetings — retirees, mostly. Therefore, he added, he saw the evening schedule as a means of bringing more residents to City Hall.
Yet, after the switch to Monday and Tuesday night sessions, Battie continued, “Those very people that I was thinking of … weren’t even here.”
Another concern he has, Battie added, is that “I see [staff members] sitting out here, waiting to [address] the commission,” if board members have questions for them, and they may have to wait for four hours without ever being called upon to speak. If he were one of those employees, he said, he would be upset.
He also concurred with Alpert that the expense of the night meetings is too high.
Finally, Battie told his colleagues, “I thought at least one day would be shorter than the other,” after the switch to sessions on Monday and Tuesday nights. “But, good God Almighty, we’re still getting out of here sometimes later on both days.”
Arroyo concurred with Alpert’s concerns about the expense, as well. “I like that conversation,” he pointed out, calling it “fiscally responsible.”
He, too, agreed that the nighttime meeting schedule “is having a toll on our staff.”
Arroyo did say that he would continue to support “hard starts and stops,” meaning the sessions would not extend beyond their allotted times.
Then, in response to a question that Arroyo posed, City Attorney Robert Fournier said that only certain types of hearings would have to be conducted at night, based on laws and city policies. For example, Fournier noted, consideration of a text amendment to the city Zoning Code would have to be handled during a session after 5 p.m. Rezonings of large pieces of property also would need to be the focus of evening meetings, Fournier added.
“I initially envisioned Tuesdays as a last resort,” Arroyo told his colleagues. However, he continued, “It appears … we just doubled the number of meetings that we have.”
If business cannot be completed during a meeting conducted between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Arroyo said, then any remaining agenda items could be rolled over to the next Monday session.
Alternatives to Alpert’s proposal
Commissioner Ahearn-Koch voiced concerns about limiting public participation by adopting a daytime schedule for most of the board’s business. She proposed a variation on the former schedule: starting in early afternoon, breaking for dinner and then returning at 6 p.m. for the evening session. She knows city residents, Ahearn-Koch stressed, who work shifts from 3 to 11 p.m., “and they feel slighted” by not being able to participate in city government.
Ahearn-Koch also expressed dismay that city staff members who have children typically have been unable to spend time with them between Sunday night and Wednesday night during weeks when the commission meets. “The hardship on staff — it’s too much.”
Yet, Ahearn-Koch maintained, “I think our community’s going to be outraged,” if the commission does not schedule what she characterized as “big items” in the evenings.
“I also appreciate the strain it has on staff,” Brody said of the current schedule. However, he emphasized, one primary reason for the switch to night sessions was that, “by being in Primetime, outside of 9 to 5, when the vast majority of people work,” the commissioners would see more residents attending the meetings.
“I hoped more people would take advantage of it,” he continued of the nighttime schedule. The COVID-19 pandemic, Brody speculated, has been the reason greater public participation has not been evident over the past months.
Further, Brody said he believes “we have too many issues that come before the commission” that could be handled at the staff level.”
Additionally, he noted, “I think that we have things reoccurring … for nonsense that aren’t even really substantive actions. … To me, that feels like we rehash, rehash, rehash.”
(At one point during the discussion, The Sarasota News Leader timed Brody at almost exactly 4 1/2 minutes as he reiterated points he had made earlier. Among them: “I really don’t think early in the morning on Monday is going to work for us and the public.”)
Brody also noted that the Charter Review Board, which is working on recommendations for revisions to the City Charter, is holding its sessions at night. He added that the members, whom he called “an eclectic group of people,” chose 6 p.m. as their starting time to encourage public participation.
Then, referencing Commissioner Alpert’s list of meeting times for other local government boards in the surrounding area, Brody said, “Of course Longboat Key has the meetings at 9 o’clock. They don’t have anything else to do.”
Vice Mayor Arroyo reminded Brody that the Longboat Commission sessions start at 1 p.m.
Brody further stressed that people considering campaigns for City Commission would be deterred from seeking seats if they had to adhere to a schedule with mostly daytime sessions.
He indicated a preference for splitting the sessions into daytime and nighttime blocks, as the city commissioners did for a number of years, akin to Ahearn-Koch’s suggestion.
Commissioner Alpert countered, “There are a lot of people in this community … that work 3 to 11,” reprising Ahearn-Koch’s argument on that point. Moreover, Alpert said, “I don’t think we have more of a working class county than [the Bradenton City Council does],” referencing the latter board’s 8:30 a.m. start.
She also pointed out that people have multiple ways to comment on city business, including participating via Zoom and sending emails to the commissioners.
City Auditor and Clerk Griggs reminded the board members of the eComments option, as well, which they implemented in early July.
“I don’t think we need to be in Primetime to be seen,” Alpert stressed.
“I think the majority of community participants would prefer this,” Alpert maintained of the proposed schedule shift. “If it doesn’t work,” she added, then “We can revisit it.”
Finally, during the third round of commissioner comments that Brody had called for, Commissioner Battie said, “I like the whole proposal of 9 to 5.”
“It sounds like kind of the way the room’s going,” Brody acknowledged.
Alpert then made her motion, which Arroyo seconded. At Ahearn-Koch’s request, Alpert did amend it — with Arroyo’s agreement — to call for an evaluation of the new schedule after it has been in effect for six months.
The motion passed 4-1, with Brody casting the “No” vote.