Majority of Sarasota city commissioners agree to direct city attorney to research lobbying registration ordinances and report findings

Commissioner Arroyo calls for city regulations to promote transparency and accountability

Commissioner Erik Arroyo. File image

On a 3-2 vote this week, the Sarasota city commissioners directed City Attorney Robert Fournier to spend — as Commissioner Erik Arroyo put it — “a limited amount of time” researching lobbying ordinances in other communities and then present his findings for a “robust discussion.”

Fournier said he would look over the ordinances that Arroyo had included in the Oct. 16 agenda packet and “come back with some points for discussion, but no proposed ordinance. Fournier indicated that he would plan on providing “impressions that I have” from reading the regulations implemented in the other municipalities.

“That would be wonderful,” Vice Mayor Liz Alpert replied.

Mayor Kyle Battie and Alpert supported Arroyo’s motion, though Alpert said several times during the Oct. 16 meeting that she believed Arroyo’s push for registration of lobbyists in the city was “a solution looking for an issue.”

Commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Debbie Trice concurred with Alpert’s view that the creation of a lobbying registration in the city does not seem warranted.

If the commissioners are unsure who a speaker or someone meeting with them is representing, Trice pointed out, “We just ask.”

Three of the four individuals who addressed the commissioners on the topic also expressed opposition to Arroyo’s proposal. Only Michael Barfield, a long-time city resident who is director of public access at the Florida Center for Government Accountability, voiced support for a measure comparable to what Arroyo is seeking.

“Nothing is wrong with more transparency in government,” Barfield said. “We consent to be governed, and the bargain in that consent is accountability.”

Further, Barfield continued, meetings with lobbyists and proponents of specific projects outside of open sessions “is a recipe for disaster.”

Arroyo told his colleagues during their regular meeting on Oct. 2 that he planned to bring up the topic this week.

During his Oct. 16 remarks at the outset of the discussion, Arroyo stressed, “True representation begins with transparent communications.” Many other municipalities in Florida have lobbying ordinances, he continued, referencing several to which he had provided links in a letter he had sent his colleagues; the materials were included in the meeting agenda packet. “We’re behind the 8 ball,” he said.

“We’ve all been approached by individuals at some point or another [to talk about issues],” Arroyo added, “and sometimes we know who they represent, and sometimes we don’t. … Lobbying with clarity is having democracy in high definition.”

For example, he continued, if five of 10 individuals who addressed the board members on a specific topic were representing one voice, “It diminishes the … voices and concerns of the residents that are not being paid.”

“It’s simple, Arroyo added: “If you’re being compensated in any way … disclose it.”

Again noting the ordinances that he had referred to with his letter in the agenda packet, Arroyo pointed out that City Attorney Fournier “could tailor something for our community,” and the commissioners could decide “where we go from there.”

“In theory,” Alpert responded first, “this sounds good. … I’m certainly for transparency, but I don’t know who we’re talking about. … Who has been paid to lobby us?”

She could not recall any incident in her eight years on the board, she continued, that seemed to fit the circumstances Arroyo was indicating as the reason for the registration of lobbyists.

Arroyo replied that one such situation arose several years ago when a former city commissioner was advocating for a project without making it known that that former commissioner was being compensated for the remarks. He did not want to name names, Arroyo said, but he promised to send his colleagues copies of newspaper articles about that incident.

“The reality,” Arroyo emphasized, “is … people approach us all the time, and we don’t know if they’re doing it on their own behalf or on behalf of some special interest.”

Nonetheless, Alpert told him, “I just don’t know what issue we have here to set in place all of this bureaucracy,” noting the requirements in the Miami-Dade County ordinance that he had included in the agenda packet.

This is a section of the Miami-Dade County lobbying ordinance. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Arroyo responded that he was not seeking such a comprehensive process as that one is. His idea, he said, would be to set up a city registry that anyone could check online.

Moreover, he pointed out, he was thinking along the lines of a $20 or $25 registration fee, whereas the Miami-Dade County fee is $250 a year.

Trice emphasized the fact that each city commissioner is required by state law to take four hours of ethics training each year. “One of the points that is hammered home [in that training],” she continued, “is that you really should not give the appearance of being partial …”

Further, she told her colleagues, “I don’t see logistically how the registration would frame the public perception.” Would City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs have to look at every card submitted by the speakers for each city meeting to determine whether any of the individuals had registered as lobbyists and then report her findings to the board, Trice asked.

This is a section of the City of Orlando lobbying ordinance. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Additionally, Trice pointed out, “Knowing who is a lobbyist doesn’t mean we’re going to make unbiased decisions. That’s up to us to choose to make unbiased decisions.”

When it was his turn to speak, Mayor Battie said, “I’m OK … either way,” with an ordinance for the City of Sarasota or without one.

He ended up seconding Arroyo’s motion.

Lobbing accusations at Arroyo for lack of transparency

On Oct. 2, city resident Cathy Antunes showed the commissioners copies of text messages that Arroyo had exchanged with Kim Githler, one of the investors in the controversial One Park development proposed for the Quay Sarasota project on the city’s bayfront.

The messages had gone to his private cell phone, Antunes noted, pointing out that Githler was asking for Arroyo’s help to prevent further delays in city meetings related to that project.

Her concern, Antunes said, “is about neutrality and preserving the process and conflicts of interest,” specifically in regard to the Quay.

(Githler, who is the founder of the investment firm MoneyShow, was one of Arroyo’s two appointments to the city’s Charter Review Committee in 2021.)

On Oct. 16, during public comments about Arroyo’s proposal for the registration of lobbyists, Flo Entler, president of the Arlington Park Neighborhood Association — who emphasized that she was speaking on her own behalf that day — brought up the issue of other text messages sent several ago regarding city business that an investigation of Arroyo’s cell phone had found. Those involved city Planning Board Chair Dan Clermont and, once again, the One Park development.

Those texts, Entler showed the commissioners, included comments from Arroyo “disparaging his constituents.”

These are part of the text messages that Flo Entler presented to the commissioners on Oct. 16. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

She asked how many times Arroyo had used his phone to conduct such exchanges out of the public eye, even though the messages were focused on city business.

“There seems to be a pattern of breaking the rules,” Entler said. It appeared to her, she added of the texts involving Clermont, that Arroyo “is trying to hide these conversations” about a topic that the City Commission will be addressing.

“If he wants to build trust with citizens,” Entler continued, “he will turn over his cell phone willingly” for a full forensic investigation. City residents “deserve to know what’s been going on behind their backs. … It’s time for full transparency.”