New Sarasota mayor puts emphasis on Rules of Procedure in effort to stem length of meetings

Jen Ahearn-Koch takes step during first regular meeting after her election to post

The Sarasota city commissioners sit at the dais during the Nov. 18 meeting. News Leader image

As the newly elected mayor of Sarasota, Jen Ahearn-Koch took the opportunity of her first meeting in that role to try to achieve what she and her colleagues have failed to accomplish over the past couple of years: reduce the length of their sessions.

On Nov. 18, during the City Commission’s first item of business involving a presentation, Ahearn-Koch asked City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs to read the city’s Rules of Procedure for a commission meeting.

The direction came after representatives of the city’s Public Art Committee offered a report of their Oct. 30 session.

Ahearn-Koch explained that, before the City Commission meeting, she had spoken with Griggs about reminding all the commissioners of the rules.

“In our discussions,” Ahearn-Koch pointed out to her colleagues, “we’ve talked about trying to streamline our meetings and sort of stay focused.”

Therefore, she continued, Griggs “is going to read the procedure for questioning [people making presentations].”

City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs reads the Rules of Procedure on Nov. 18. News Leader image

Griggs read, “Under Rule X, Rules of Debate, Items B through D, Commissioners desiring to speak shall address the presiding officer and upon recognition, speak to the topic, avoiding personal remarks and indecorous language as determined by the presiding officer.

“Prior to a motion being made, Commissioners shall be allowed to ask direct questions for informational purposes. After a motion has been made, Commissioners shall have two opportunities to speak to a motion.

“Commissioners cannot speak the second time on a motion until every Commissioner who desires to speak on it has an opportunity to do so.

“Debate shall be limited to the immediately pending motion.”

After Griggs concluded reading the rules, Ahearn-Koch thanked her.

“Commissioners, do you have any questions?” Ahearn-Koch asked.

Then Commissioner Willie Shaw pointed out that Griggs had not mentioned the 10-minute limit for each of the two periods when commissioners are able to make remarks on a motion.

Griggs apologized and then read, “Each limited to 10 minutes.”

These are the Rules of Debate set out in the City Commission’s Rules of Procedure. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

With no further comments, Ahearn-Koch asked whether anyone had questions for the representatives of the Public Art Committee or City Planning Director Steve Cover, who was seated at the table with them.

The focus shifted back to that agenda item, as Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said she had two questions.

Since 2017, with many of their meetings running late into the night or into what some people refer to as “the wee hours of the morning,” the city commissioners have talked of a variety of ways to prevent such long sessions.

One measure, taken last year, was to move up the starting time of the afternoon sessions from 2:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.

At that time, Griggs asked whether the board members intended to stick to the schedule in their meeting rules that called for the afternoon sessions to end at 4:30 p.m.

That was their intent, they indicated. However, they often go past that point. Shaw has proven most cognizant of the need to make a motion to extend a meeting past that appointed time, when the clock indicates 4:30 p.m. will arrive sooner than the end of a discussion that is underway.

A number of times when she was mayor — prior to Ahearn-Koch’s Nov. 8 election to the ceremonial post — Commissioner Liz Alpert interrupted her colleagues during afternoon discussions, pointing out that they needed time to eat dinner before their evening session began at 6 p.m.

Commissioner Liz Alpert. File photo

Sept. 5, 2017 was the first time Alpert — then, the vice mayor — brought up her concerns about the effects of the long hours on staff, the public and the board members. That meeting, in fact, did not adjourn until 12:05 a.m. on Sept. 6, 2017.

On various occasions, Alpert has stressed that city employees have to be at work at their normal starting time the following day, regardless of how long an evening session runs past the appointed ending time of 9:30 p.m.

She also has talked about members of the public giving up opportunities to address the board because those persons had to leave, as meetings continued well into the night.

In early October 2018, when the commissioners finally voted on formally starting their afternoon sessions an hour earlier, Freeland Eddie and Shaw opposed the proposal.

Freeland Eddie has talked of the demands on her time, as she is an attorney with her own practice in Sarasota.

Shaw has been blunt on more than one occasion that some board members “just talk to hear themselves talk,” as he put it on Oct. 1, 2018.