Commissioner Ahearn-Koch only board member to argue against such a change, with Mayor Brody insistent on it
Close to three years after the last Sarasota City Commission debates on the topic — which resulted in a minor adjustment — the majority of the board members seem set on holding their meetings at night instead of splitting the sessions between afternoon and evening.
New Vice Mayor Erik “E” Arroyo — who was elected on Nov. 3 — raised the issue during the commission’s regular meeting on Nov. 16. This time, Mayor Hagen Brody, new Commissioner Kyle Scott Battie and Commissioner Liz Alpert agreed to consider adjustments as an item on their agenda for Jan. 4, 2021.
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch objected and then cast the solitary “No” vote.
Brody called for settling the issue during the commissioners’ next regular meeting, which is scheduled for Dec. 7. However, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown pointed out that the agenda for that session already was close to completion. At Brown’s recommendation, Brody finally agreed to the postponement of the discussion until the board holds its first regular meeting in 2021.
When Arroyo brought up the topic last week, he noted the long meetings the commissioners typically conduct. He suggested that instead of starting the sessions at 1:30 p.m. in the afternoon, two Mondays a month, and then beginning the evening sessions at 6 p.m. those days, the commission schedule a regular meeting each Monday from 5:30 to 10 p.m. or 6 to 10 p.m.
Further, he proposed that staff members’ presentations to the board be no longer than 5 minutes, after which the commissioners could ask questions.
“I think it would be more efficient,” Arroyo added. “Sometimes the commissioners and the public have an opinion — a strong opinion — on a certain item, and that really slows down our meetings.”
“These meetings in the middle of the day of the work week are just very, very tough for somebody that is working, trying to make a meeting,” Brody pointed out.
Brody, Alpert and Arroyo all are attorneys.
“I really want to see us move our meetings out of the 9 to 5 workday,” Brody continued, so the board members can handle their regular jobs as well as their part-time obligations as commissioners.
Further, Brody agreed with the need for the meetings to flow more efficiently. “As the chair,” he said, “I’m working with the clerk. We’re really trying to do that.”
Still, Brody added, he was not certain that it would be a good idea to meet every Monday. Perhaps every other Monday and Tuesday from 6 to 10 p.m. would be an appropriate schedule, he continued, with special meetings scheduled as needed on issues “that kind of bust our agendas.”
He then reiterated his earlier point about the need to stop conducting the meetings during the middle of the workday. “It’s not fair to the working people on the commission, and it’s also not fair to the public. My hope,” Brody said, “is that we can have commission meetings that are in Prime Time,” so young people can watch them. (He was referring to television networks’ evening hours when most viewership is recorded.)
Brody added that he wants to keep the meetings to a predictable length, as well. That is one of his goals as mayor, he pointed out. That would enable members of the public to be able to figure out approximately when to expect specific items to be addressed during a session, Brody noted.
“We’ve lost more people to our length of our meetings than have participated in our meetings, and I just think … if we show a little flexibility here and a little ingenuity,” he said, he and his colleagues can “make [the meetings] a much more pleasurable and positive experience for us.”
“We talked about this a couple of years ago,” Commissioner Alpert reminded Brody. At that time, she continued, board members expressed the view that those who ran for a seat on the commission knew from the outset what the meeting schedule was.
Still, as a result of those discussions, the board members agreed to move up the start of their afternoon sessions from 2:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.
The discussions about the meeting schedule began in 2017, following the election of Brody and Ahearn-Koch to the commission in May of that year.
“But the bigger concern I have is the effect on the staff,” Alpert added on Nov. 16. City employees “have to be here at 8 in the morning every day,” she emphasized, “so if we have lots of night meetings, and then they have to be here at 8 a.m. the next morning, every day, I think it’s unfair to them.”
If the commissioners were to change the schedule to call for sessions only at night, Alpert added, city staff members should not have to come to work until 1 p.m. on the days after the meetings.
“Personally,” she told her colleagues, “I think Mondays are tough.” Her preference, she said, would be to conduct the board sessions on Tuesdays and start them earlier.
Alpert did commend Brody on how efficiently he had conducted the meeting that day. However, she said, “No matter what you do to try to get the meeting under control,” the commissioners cannot predict how many people will want to address them on specific issues. “If you have 200 people show up for a meeting,” Alpert noted, “you can’t tell them they can’t speak, so there’s no way to control that.”
A variety of factors to consider
When Brody asked Commissioner Ahearn-Koch for her views, she replied, “We have discussed this on a number of different occasions, and I think that before we sort of randomly make these kinds of decisions, we should definitely have numbers to look at.”
For example, Ahearn-Koch continued, she wanted to see how much overtime staff members would have to be paid if the meetings were held only in the evenings. She stressed the potential for the city to have to provide a lot of overtime pay. “And that comes at a real serious cost.”
Another consideration, she pointed out, is that if the board were to increase the frequency of its sessions, staff members would find it difficult to take vacations or even a break. “We would always be in agenda time,” Ahearn-Koch added, referring to the period during which staff puts together the agendas for upcoming meetings.
Ahearn-Koch was among the commissioners in the fall of 2017 who pushed for a requirement that staff publish the agendas approximately three weeks before each session, to give the commissioners plenty of time to review materials related to each item and then ask questions of staff, if necessary, in advance of the sessions.
For example, the agenda for the Dec. 7 meeting was published on Nov. 20.
Ahearn-Koch also noted during the Nov. 16 discussion that event though the meetings thus far this year were scheduled to take up 147 hours, the board members concluded all the work in 134 hours and 18 minutes, saving close to 13 hours.
Nonetheless, she acknowledged, “Seems like a lot [of time in session]; feels like a lot …”
Ahearn-Koch then voiced support for the current schedule, with Consent Agenda items of routine business heard during the afternoon sessions and the more “contentious items” in the evening sessions. “I think that’s very smart.”
Moreover, she continued, if all the sessions are conducted at night, commissioners who are parents will not be able to spend time with their children — taking them to music lessons, for example — or even be able enjoy family dinners those days. “That is really going to break into people’s personal life.”
“I get what you’re trying to do, Commissioner Brody,” she added, “and I really understand it; but, I think that the system we have now is the best of both worlds.”
“It’s a very real-world problem for us to deal with,” Brody replied. He had spoken with staff members about the potential schedule change, he added, and they had told him they would accommodate the commissioners.
“I also think we will increase participation in our meetings by moving [them to a nighttime schedule],” Brody said.
When Brody asked Commissioner Battie his opinion, Battie said, “I think this proposal is something worth entertaining …” However, Battie continued, the commissioners need to determine what will work best for them, the public and the city staff.
Alpert suggested the board members focus on the issue as part of a workshop they have set for January.
Ahearn-Koch concurred. In the meantime, she added, staff members could gather more information on details such as overtime.
Perhaps the best approach would be to ask staff to suggest options for moving the meetings out of the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. time frame, Brody responded. “But I don’t want to wait till January.”
At that point, Deputy City Manager Brown suggested that the regular meeting on Jan. 4, 2021 would be a better time for the board members to make a decision. That would allow for engagement with the City Auditor and Clerk’s Office and the Office of the City Attorney, he added, about the effects of the type of schedule Brody and Arroyo were proposing.
Brody again said that he would prefer the decision be made during the board’s meeting on Dec. 7.
Yet, Brown reminded him that the agenda for that session would be published on Nov. 20. That was why he was asking for the Jan. 4, 2021 date, Brown added.
“I’m fine with tabling it to January,” Arroyo replied. After he made a motion to that effect, Alpert seconded it.
The vote was 4-1, with Ahearn-Koch in the minority.