Speakers who address City Commission to be required to state whether they are city residents

Freeland Eddie the only board member to oppose the change in Rules of Procedure

The City Commission listens to Human Resources Director Stacie Mason on Aug. 20, 2018. File photo

The adoption of a resolution formally changing part of the Rules of Procedure for Sarasota City Commission meetings led to a debate this week about whether individuals who address the board should state publicly whether they are city residents.

After the commissioners decided last year to move up the starting time of their afternoon sessions from 2:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m., they agreed to have City Attorney Robert Fournier make a few other minor changes to the rules.

During his remarks about his proposed resolution on Jan. 7, during the board’s first regular meeting of 2019, Fournier noted that Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch had suggested that another modification involve the Pledge of Conduct that every speaker signs. Instead of asking people to “avoid personal attacks,” Fournier noted, Ahearn-Koch had called for the language to read, “will not engage in personal attacks.”

He had heard no objections to that proposal during an informal commission discussion regarding the changes, Fournier added.

Then he turned to the suggestion that the Rules of Procedure eliminate the necessity of having a speaker name the street on which the speaker lives. The commission has not been enforcing that existing requirement anyway, Fournier noted.

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch. File photo

Ahearn-Koch replied that she thought the suggestion had been made for speakers, instead, to state whether they live within the city.

“I didn’t recall that there was clear consensus on that,” Fournier responded. However, if that was the will of the commission, that change could be made, he added.

“That was my concern, also,” Commissioner Willie Shaw said.

Shaw then referenced appearances before the board in recent months by residents of Manatee County and South County, “having nothing to do with a city issue, and they’re influencing the conversation.”

“I can make that change,” Fournier reiterated his earlier comment, if that was the will of the majority of the commissioners.

“If it’s changed on the form [speakers sign],” Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie said, that would be sufficient. “As long as we have access to that information [about whether a speaker is a city resident], that’s helpful.”

Freeland Eddie continued, “I don’t want to have the impression that if you are not a city resident, we don’t want to hear from you. … I don’t want anybody to feel uncomfortable about coming up here, but I also don’t want us to be misled in thinking that a person has an interest that they don’t actually have.”

Just requiring that the information about residency be on the record is the most important factor, she said again.

“I would not discriminate in any way, shape or form” against a person who does not live in the city,” Ahearn-Koch responded. “For me, it’s just a point of knowing whether or not they are a city resident …”

Ahearn-Koch also pointed out that only Mayor Liz Alpert sees the forms the speakers sign and turn in, so they can address the board during a meeting. Ahearn-Koch said she would like to know whether a speaker is a city resident.

“I just don’t want to create a climate to where a person feels like they have to say, ‘I’m a city resident,’ or not,” Freeland Eddie replied. “For some, it’s not a big deal,” she added, because they are used to appearing before the board. However, a first-time speaker, Freeland Eddie continued, might wonder why the commission wanted the information about the person’s place of residence.

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie. File photo

“If I live in the county and traffic is bad, traffic is bad, and I should be able to come to the City Commission without saying if I’m a city or county resident,” Freeland Eddie added.

“I’m of a persuasion that if you’re a city resident, you state that you’re a city resident. That’s the whole purpose of this input,” Shaw responded. “I do want to know the difference between a person living in the county speaking [and a person living in the city addressing the board]. That does make a difference.”

Referencing his past employment with the U.S. Postal Service, Shaw pointed out that he likely is more readily able to identify whether an address on a speaker’s form is within the city or the county. Nonetheless, he said, “I would rather hear that [in the person’s comments].”

“The only point I want to make here is our rules had asked that speakers be more specific [about where they live],” Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues. The change, as suggested, would make the requirement less specific, she said, but it still would enable the board members to know where a speaker resides.

“The rule was here, and it was here for a reason,” she continued, “and there was an intent behind that reason.”

The proposed change would be what she characterized as “middle ground,” she added.

Shaw then made a motion to adopt the changes proposed in the Rules of Procedure, including the modification calling for a speaker to state whether the person lives within the city.

Ahearn-Koch seconded it.

The vote was 4-1, with Freeland Eddie opposing the motion.

This is the proposed amendment to the Rules of Procedure, prior to the Jan. 7 City Commission modification of it. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

During the next item on the Jan. 7 agenda, the first speaker to appear before the board, Jose Fernandez, stated that he lives on Bob White Way. He wanted to comply with the existing Rules of Procedure, he added, until the changes voted on that day took effect.

Traditionally, following approval of a resolution, the mayor’s signature is necessary before the action goes into effect.