Public Art Committee’s future in jeopardy

‘Sharing’ by Bruno Lucchesi stands outside Selby Public Library. Photo by Stan Zimmerman

The City of Sarasota’s Public Art Committee is going under a political microscope to determine whether it lives or dies. The last item on the Sept. 4 City Commission agenda was a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the current chairman of the committee.

“Now we have advisory board members suing the city,” said Commissioner Terry Turner. “We should decommission this standing committee and rely on ad hoc committees instead. How do we do that?”

Commissioner Shannon Snyder quickly backed Turner’s idea. “I’d be receptive to studying it,” he said. “The [public art] fund is less than $150,000. For what it is, we’re not seeing any great amount of money coming into the fund anytime soon.”

The city requires all major developments to apportion one-half of 1% of any project’s costs to providing public art for the project. Such art is often a sculpture outside the resulting building, but the work can be located in a public space inside the building.

The Public Art Committee has had the role of passing judgment on the proposed art, taking the “artistic decision” out of the hands of elected officials who sometimes lack any aesthetic sensibility, committee members have said. The committee also is responsible for public art in or near public buildings.

Probably the most extreme examples of taste are at the downtown Selby Library. Inside is an ultra-modernist mobile in perpetual motion. It was designed by Tim Prentice. Outside, at the western end of the parking lot, is a retro-American figurative in bronze called “Sharing” by Bruno Lucchesi. It depicts a family reading a book.

The suit

The lawsuit triggering Turner’s fire-the-committee comment was filed on July 11 by George Haborak and Citizens for Sunshine. Haborak is the chairman of the Public Art Committee. Citizens for Sunshine is a group advocating transparency in government.

The issue revolved around a “steering committee” established after Mayor Suzanne Atwell returned from Ashville, N.C., where a public art program called “Mice on Main” was a big hit. Children would look for small statues of mice in the downtown area.

Atwell wanted something similar in Sarasota, and the steering committee came up with something called “Diversity in the Arts: A Child’s Journey.” Eight small bronze sculptures would be created with $55,000 from the public art budget. The plan went through the Public Art Committee, and with staff’s recommendation, the city commissioners voted unanimously for its approval.

There was only one catch. The “steering committee” met “out of the sunshine” five times and took formal minutes only once. Florida has a strict open-meetings law that requires advance meeting notices to the public, and it further requires that meetings be held in public spaces.

When City Attorney Bob Fournier was apprised of the steering committee’s actions, he alerted the City Commission and offered to resolve the problem. But before he could get started, Haborak and Citizens for Sunshine filed suit, asking that the project and associated funding be voided and that Haborak’s and the organization’s legal expenses be reimbursed.

Fournier immediately tried to settle the case, but that took weeks. On Monday, the City Commission agreed to pay about $5,000 in legal fees to Haborak and Citizens for Sunshine, and wiped out the project.

“We will make mistakes,” said Turner. “It’s disturbing when we admit a mistake and still get sued. That costs the taxpayer money.”

Stepping forward

Nothing in the agreement prevents the Public Art Committee from taking up the same project with the same dollars. Except now there are fewer dollars. Turner made a motion to pay the legal fees from the Public Art Fund. “It is a legitimate expense for the art fund,” he said. Snyder seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously.

“It is sad to see this happening,” said Atwell. “I want to see this project, and any others that may come our way. I’m hoping we can continue to work with public art. We need to move forward.”

When Turner suggested the Public Art Committee be abolished, Fourier reminded him of the requirement for new developments to fund public art projects. Speaking of the role the committee has in that effort, Fournier said, “You could redirect that responsibility.” He said he would be willing to research the matter and bring back the results.

Turner then made a motion calling for the city attorney to look at the options to eliminate the Public Art Committee and report back to the City Commission. The motion was approved unanimously.

2 thoughts on “Public Art Committee’s future in jeopardy”

  1. I have been reading about the “Mice on Main” controversy since its inception in the H-T, the Observer Group papers and now in the Sarasota News Leader. And, to be quite frank, it seems to be a case of Shooting the Messenger.

    A synopsis:

    Commissioner Susan Atwell viewed an art project called “Mice on Main”; decided she liked it and wanted a similar project for Sarasota. Instead of working with the Public Arts Commission she worked with Virginia Hoffman and an ad hoc “steering committee” led by Hoffman pushed it through the City Commission.

    The Florida Sunshine Law was ignored five times and the offending parties were caught out.

    Robert Fournier, city attorney, alerted the City Commission and offered to resolve the problem.

    George Haborak and the Citizens for Sunshine sued before he could do so.

    Terry Turner was quoted as saying “We all make mistakes. It’s disturbing when we admit a mistake and still get sued.”

    Terry Turner then, according to reports, made a motion calling for the city attorney to look at the options to eliminate the Public Arts Committee.

    An Analysis of the above:

    If Ms. Atwell had worked with the Public Arts Commission, in a proper manner, there might not have been a problem.

    If Robert Fournier and/or the City Commission were quicker to act there might not have been a problem.

    If Mr. Haborak and The Citizens for Sunshine had simply accepted Mr. Turner’s or the City Commission’s apology there would have been a savings of city monies but:
    a). with no monetary cost to the city there would be little reason not to repeat those same types of improper actions in the future for other projects and bills, and
    b). The improperly reviewed and possibly ill-conceived arts project would not have been stopped.

    Eliminating the Public Arts Commission is exactly the opposite of what should happen. Rather its structure should be strengthened so that someone like Ms. Hoffman could not commandeer its direction. If Mr. Turner and Attorney Fournier want to do some elimination work, perhaps they should eliminate Ms. Hoffman’s roll on the Public Arts Commission so that personnel aggrandizement cannot pervert due process.

    (From city attorney Robert Fournier’s Aug. 14, 2012 memorandum to the city commission:)
    7. The Interim City Manager has made a decision to eliminate the position of
    Project Manager for this particular interactive public art project due to his belief that the working relationship between Ms. Hoffman and the PAC has been impaired by this lawsuit and some of the interaction that preceded it. The Interim City Manager’s decision in this regard was not made based on the belief that Ms. Hoffman has committed a violation of the Sunshine law or that she has otherwise done anything wrong as all of her activities in connection with this project were done with prior Commission and administrative approval and under staff supervision. It is acknowledged that Ms. Hoffman has been a hard working dedicated volunteer
    for the City whose contribution to public art is much appreciated. Accordingly, Ms. Hoffman will continue to serve as a public art volunteer for the City. Any formal settlement agreement will not include an admission that Ms. Hoffman, individually, has committed a violation of the Sunshine law. (Please see further comments below.)

    8. The Complaint filed in this suit also contains an allegation that Dr. Smith and Ms.
    Hoffman made a misrepresentation to the Public Art Committee. Based on my investigation, I believe this allegation to be inaccurate. Any formal settlement agreement will not include an admission that Dr. Smith or Ms. Hoffman made a misrepresentation to the Public Art Committee.
    In conclusion, I would like to note further that the portion of the lawsuit directed at Dr.
    Smith and Ms. Hoffman individually alleges that they were in fact members of the Steering Committee which met “out of the sunshine.” The Complaint further alleges that Dr. Smith and Ms. Hoffman exchanged emails regarding matters that were to come before the Steering Committee for a vote. However, again, based upon my investigation of the subject matter I have found no persuasive evidence that Dr. Smith and Ms. Hoffman were in fact members of this Steering Committee. Rather, I believe that both Dr. Smith and Ms. Hoffman considered themselves to be and were, in fact, staff support personnel assigned to the Committee and not Committee members. Accordingly, any such emails between them would not have been in violation of the Sunshine law.

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