No good deed goes unpunished at City Hall

Nothing makes people madder than being punished for doing what they know is right — and the law is on their side.

When George Haborak, chairman of the city’s Public Art Committee, blew the whistle over what he perceived was a Sunshine Laws violation by an ad hoc committee, little did he think his committee would be penalized and threatened with abolition.

During the Sept. 4 regular City Commission meeting, City Attorney Bob Fournier said he wanted to settle the suit by Haborak and Citizens For Sunshine for about $5,000 because he did not want this case to go to trial.

The agreement called for the city to reimburse the plaintiff’s legal fees and nullify a decision about a $55,000 art project desired by Mayor Suzanne Atwell. She’d appointed the ad hoc committee – dubbed a “steering committee.” It met five times, kept formal minutes only once and never gave any advance notice of its meetings.

Yes, it is hard to believe that after operating 40 years under the nation’s most progressive public records and meetings laws that any group in Florida could think it could give advice on spending public money, and do it out of the sunshine. It beggars the imagination.

In other words, Haborak’s tweet on the whistle was justified, an expensive lawsuit was avoided and participants of the “ad hoc adventure” were chastised. It looked like a clean win-win until City Commissioner Terry Turner said on Sept. 4, “Now we have advisory board members suing the city. We should decommission this standing committee and rely on ad hoc committees instead. How to we do that?”

Turner made a motion for Fournier to look at how to abolish the Public Art Committee, and the motion passed unanimously. The motion also proposed paying the settlement money from the city’s public art fund.

In other words, shoot the messenger; then, pick his pocket. Haborak’s committee didn’t break the Sunshine Laws. The mayor’s ad hoc committee did. And Turner wanted to rely on other ad hoc committees once the Public Art Committee was left for dead. The unanimously approved motion was a pound of salt ground into an open wound.

Haborak and Citizens For Sunshine immediately pulled their agreement for settlement and said – in effect – “We can’t wait to see you in court.”

When Fournier briefed the city commissioners about the matter during a workshop on Sept. 10, he said: “The Public Art Committee did not violate the sunshine, and they perceive they are being punished.”

“I recommend we all just dial it back to before this discussion started,” Fournier suggested. “You’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

The commissioners (reluctantly) agreed, and Fournier hopes Haborak and “Citizens” will agree to settle. But Turner’s message is certain to echo around the city’s other advisory board members, some of whom put in long hours for no pay because they love this city and want to improve it.

We accuse national politicians of ready-fire-aim thinking, but it looks like the misbegotten strategy is taking hold locally. There are indeed multiple offenders here: the mayor, for snatching an assignment from the Public Art Committee and giving it to an oblivious ad hoc committee; Fournier, who could have grasped the retaliatory flavor of Turner’s punitive motion and steered the commission to saner ground; and Turner, whose knee-jerk reaction to punish the messenger sends chills down the spines of staff and advisory boards alike.

And worst of all was the impression this gave the city’s new manager, Tom Barwin. It was his first meeting sitting at the dais. You could almost see the thought bubble over his head: Is this how business gets done in Sarasota?