Public comment changes made official in County Commission’s Rules of Procedure

Another modification regards public access to the dais in Commission Chambers

Mike Cosentino addresses the County Commission on Aug. 29, 2018. File photo

With no further comment on the concerns that spurred the action, the Sarasota County Commission last week approved changes to the Open to the Public portions of its meetings.

During a Jan. 29 discussion about the proposed revisions to the commission’s Rules of Procedure, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh indicated to the board members that their tweaks “could come back very quickly on a Consent Agenda.” Indeed, the Rules of Procedure item was the second one on the commission’s Feb. 13 Consent Agenda of routine business matters.

Commissioner Nancy Detert made the motion to approve the balance of the Consent Agenda items, including the changes, and Commissioner Michael Moran seconded it. The motion then passed unanimously.

Talk about revising the board’s Rules of Procedure regarding the Open to the Public periods began in earnest after a situation arose during a meeting in late November 2018. Fifteen people addressed the board that morning to complain that the commissioners figuratively were dragging their feet on implementing two Sarasota County Charter amendments that Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino wrote. The amendments had won voter approval during the Nov. 6, 2018 General Election.

As a result of a prolonged Open to the Public period, the board was about an hour behind its anticipated schedule when it began to address business items on that day’s agenda.

Commissioners voiced frustration later about that situation, as well as previous occasions when multitudes of people used the Open to the Public period to address topics not on the agenda. Commissioner Charles Hines, especially, talked of the need to ensure fairness to petitioners who might have waited months for their applications to come before the board. If they had to wait even longer than expected the day their issues were on the agenda, he said, the petitioners might incur extra expense for expert witnesses who had accompanied them to the meeting.

Yet, Hines also emphasized that the commission did not want to suppress public comments on topics that were not on the day’s agenda.

The commissioners finally told County Administrator Jonathan Lewis that they wanted to have an in-depth discussion on potential changes to the Rules of Procedure, to prevent the recurrence of situations such as the one on Nov. 27, 2018.

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh replies to a question. File photo

As indicated in the documents provided to the board in advance of their regular meeting on Feb. 13, the following changes have been made in regard to the 3-minute Open to the Public sessions of regular board meetings:

  • “Public comment related to items scheduled on the Consent, Discussion, or Reports sections [of the agenda] will be heard first. (Testimony on Public Hearing items will be heard as part of the individual Public Hearing.)
  • “Following public comment on scheduled agenda items, the Board will hear up to 5 speakers on topics not on the published agenda, but which may be appropriate for the Board’s future consideration.
  • “Any remaining [speaker] cards will be held for the final Open to the Public segment at the end of the meeting to ensure advertised agenda items are heard in a timely manner.
  • “The Board, at its discretion, may direct the County Administrator to research and report back on any topic raised during Open to the Public, request a discussion be scheduled on a future agenda, or decline to take action.”

The board will continue to conduct an Open to the Public period at 1:30 p.m. on days when it has afternoon sessions, the revised document says. The process will mirror that of the morning Open to the Public period.

Further, during a joint meeting of the County Commission with another local government body, public input “will be scheduled prior to the conclusion of the meeting and may include any topics appropriate for the Boards’ future consideration.” Again, the time limit will be 3 minutes per person.

Public comments also will be scheduled at the beginning and end of any board workshop or retreat, with the same procedures as those for a regular meeting, the revised rules note.

The ribbon in front of the dais

The ribbon-and-post system stands in front of the commission dais during a Dec. 12, 2018 public hearing. Rachel Hackney photo

Another new provision in the Rules of Procedure says, “No person, except County officers or their representatives, shall be permitted beyond the podium or staff desks, or on the dais during the course of a meeting.”

During a Jan. 8 interview, The Sarasota News Leader asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis about a ribbon-and-post system that was being placed in front of the County Commission dais.

“That’s a me issue,” Lewis replied. “It’s relatively new.”

Lewis noted that a member of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office is present at every board meeting. “I’m watching that deputy stand there, and he’s trying to watch the room.”

The officer, he continued, “[has] a huge job to do in this day and age.”

Lewis added that he had observed that it was not difficult for someone to slip behind the deputy and approach the dais, as the officer obviously could not look in all directions at the same time. “It’s not reasonable to have that space open while [the board members are] trying to do business.”

Commissioners often would invite friends up to the dais, too, Lewis said, when they were not in session. For that matter, he pointed out, a person could just walk up to the dais in the middle of a meeting.

Those types of situations, he continued, make it “very hard to secure the room … Sometimes, [they put] our employees at risk, and somebody has to say that’s not a risk I’m willing to take.”

He referenced “experience over the past 20 years,” adding, “I’ve been part of lots of security assessments on council chambers.”

Therefore, he felt that placing the ribbon in front of the dais would be an appropriate step.

Any person interested in speaking with him or a commissioner still is able to do so, Lewis pointed out, as he or a board member simply can come around the side of the dais to talk to a member of the public.

Lewis did add, “I don’t think the board likes [the ribbon and posts]. … Occasionally, I get a look.”