Sarasota city commissioners debate how to shorten their meetings, which routinely are lasting until midnight

With a variety of suggestions but no consensus, they table the issue for the second time

The City Commission sits in session on Oct. 2. News Leader photo

After a second round of discussions, the Sarasota city commissioners still have not reached a consensus on whether they should adjust the beginning time of their meetings.

The issue first appeared on the Sept. 5 agenda at the request of Vice Mayor Liz Alpert, who voiced concern that meetings routinely were running late into the night.

The Sept. 5 session itself did not adjourn until 12:05 a.m. on Sept. 6.

On Oct. 2, some members suggested that one way to reduce the length of discussions is to get their agenda packets sooner, so they will be better prepared when each meeting begins and will need to ask fewer questions of staff. Additionally, the longest-serving board member — Commissioner Willie Shaw, who was elected in 2011 — proposed that the board members themselves try not to be repetitive in their comments.

“Not every one of our [agenda] items requires debate upon debate,” Shaw pointed out. “By your nature, you’re attorneys. You get paid by the minute, by the hour,” he told Alpert, Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Commissioner Hagen Brody.

If they really wanted to address the length of meetings, he continued, they should look at the videos of some of the previous sessions to see why they ran long. “It isn’t the public,” Shaw said. “We debate nonsense. … We debate stuff that isn’t even necessary to debate. … Maybe we need to look at our own protocols.”

“It’s not fair to staff; it’s not fair to us; it’s not fair to the public who wants to speak on issues to be here till midnight,” Alpert told her colleagues on Oct. 2.

Vice Mayor Liz Alpert. News Leader photo

It appeared that session would be yet another one extending late into the night, she added. It already was 5 p.m. as she was speaking, she pointed out. “We’re probably not even going to get much of a dinner break,” she added, “which is hard on everybody. I would like to see us start in the mornings, but, minimally … start at 1 o’clock.”

If any items remained on the agenda, they could be carried over to the evening, Alpert said, and controversial business or other issues of most importance to the public could be left for the evening agendas.

The board begins its meetings at 2:30 p.m., with the agenda calling for the conclusion of the afternoon sessions at 4:30 p.m. The evening sessions start at 6 p.m.

“I just think it’s wrong for everybody to be here so late,” Alpert summed up her concern.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, who was just elected to the board in May, responded that she would be willing to consider moving the starting time up by a couple of hours. However, she told her colleagues, that change should go “hand-in-hand” with staff’s commitment to get the agenda packets to the commissioners sooner. She has been pressing the latter issue, she noted. If the packets were delivered to the commissioners a week before each session, she said, she expected she would need less time during the meetings to ask questions of staff.

At Alpert’s request, City Attorney Robert Fournier explained that very few items, by law, must be heard during a session held after 5 p.m. Those entail city-initiated zoning amendments to the Zoning Code, as well as changes in permitted uses in zoning districts.

“That’s really all we have to do in the evening,” Alpert added.

Agenda problems

Sarasota Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie. News Leader photo

“Until there’s commissioner input on the agenda,” Freeland Eddie began, “then we’re going to continue to have multiple items of significant public input placed on the same agenda,” which is going to continue to generate a lot of public interest and the desire for people to address the board. She suggested that at least one commissioner be involved in the creation of each agenda, so that board member can work with staff to try to ensure that a number of discussions anticipated to be lengthy ones would not be handled in the same meeting.

Shaw voiced concern about having a board member working with staff on agenda creation. The commissioners are the policymakers, he pointed out. Putting together the agendas, he added, “is not our purview.”

“It’s the public’s agenda,” Freeland Eddie responded, adding that staff serves at the pleasure of the commissioners. The board members should have more say about what goes on each agenda, she continued. “[We] don’t see the ingredients of the cake; we just get the cake when it’s done.” By the time the commissioners learn what is on an agenda, she added, the agenda already has been published.

Alpert agreed that the board members needed to have more advance notice about agenda items that are coming up. Often, she noted, members of the public tell her that an item will be on an upcoming agenda, and she is surprised at the news.

“We don’t want to be in that position,” Freeland Eddie concurred with Alpert.

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown told the board members that they could discuss upcoming agendas during a public forum. Because they all are equals, he pointed out, it would seem inappropriate if just one of them were to participate in the agenda creation process.

“I think that more information [in the agenda packets] helps,” Commissioner Brody pointed out. For example, he continued, “I consistently ask the question, ‘Where’s the money coming from?’” on financial issues. More details in the backup agenda material would make that question unnecessary, he added.

The ‘working class’ and fodder for thought

Freeland Eddie also expressed concern that moving up the meeting time “puts working class folks at a disadvantage,” because they typically would be unable to appear before the commission.

She added that she would endeavor to ensure that people who cannot leave their jobs or businesses during the daytime would be able to address significant issues. “I’m still gonna be the one that’s gonna request that an item be on the evening agenda.”

City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch listens as Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown makes a report on Sept. 18. File photo

Alpert responded that in the past two years she has been on the board, she has made note of attendees who make comments. “It’s many of the same people, most of which are not the working people anyway.”

The Sarasota County Commission begins its meetings at 9 a.m., Alpert pointed out, and most of the time, people who wish to address that board manage to get to those sessions. “I’m in favor of changing how we meet if it achieves a more efficient meeting and gets things done,” Freeland Eddie said at one point. However, she told her colleagues, she was not in favor of starting earlier just so the sessions would end sooner. In fact, Freeland Eddie added, unless the commissioners specified ending times for their meetings, the sessions still would have the tendency to run long.

“You can make better decisions during the day rather than at 11:30 at night,” Alpert said, noting that her interest is in seeing not only an earlier starting time but also shorter meetings.

Alpert also concurred with Ahearn-Koch that the board members should have their agenda packets at least the Wednesday night before the session is held the following Monday. That would give the commissioners two business days and two weekend days “to go through a whole lot of material,” Alpert said, and to ask questions of staff and make site visits. “I think all of that has to be streamlined.”

“Nine-thirty in the morning would be great” as the new starting time, Alpert continued.

Based on the comments, Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues, it appeared four potential solutions were available: have a commissioner participate in the drawing up of each agenda to help ensure that a number of lengthy discussions are not held on the same day; start the sessions “a little bit earlier”; make certain the agenda packets go to the board members sooner; and perhaps limit debate among the commissioners.

“I agree with Commissioner Ahearn-Koch,” Alpert replied. “I think, certainly, moving the meeting times is one of the critical items.”

Commissioner Hagen Brody. News Leader photo

As for debate among board members, Alpert pointed out that because of the state Sunshine Law, the open meetings are the “only [times] we have a chance to talk with each other about how we feel [about issues].”

Brody told his colleagues, “I’m torn” about changing the meeting time. “It’s a part-time position,” he pointed out of serving on the commission, a statement that drew laughter from Shaw.

In the future, Brody continued, he wanted to see more young people serving on the board, “not just folks that happen to have the time to do this.” If the meetings began at 9 a.m., he added, many people with jobs would find that schedule difficult.

With the discussion having taken about 20 minutes at that point, Alpert suggested, “in the interest of time,” that the board members table the issue again. They could think about the comments made that afternoon, she said, before reprising the discussion later.

Brody then voiced his frustration with the fact that the board members table quite a few items, which creates backlogs in their agendas, adding to the length of meetings.

After about 23 minutes of discussion, the board members voted unanimously to table the topic.