Starting in February, City Commission switching to night meetings on first and third Mondays and Tuesdays

Vice mayor and mayor say the change will lead to more productive sessions

Members of the City Commission sit in session on Jan. 4, along with City Attorney Robert Fournier (far left), City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs (second from left), Interim City Manager Marlon Brown (second from right) and Interim Deputy City Manager Pat Robinson (far right). News Leader image

Beginning in February, the Sarasota City Commission will adhere to a new schedule for its meetings: Generally, routine business matters will be conducted between 6 and 10 p.m. on the first and third Mondays of each month, and public hearings and major discussions will be on the agendas for the first and third Tuesdays from 6 to 10 p.m.

Mayor Hagen Brody also indicated to his colleagues this week that he plans a “hard stop” at 10 p.m. during each session, which could necessitate continuing some of the Tuesday matters to the next Monday meeting, at City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs’ recommendation.

“That is my goal,” Brody replied when Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch asked about wrapping up the sessions at 10 p.m. “It is for the public’s benefit,” Brody explained, “because 11, 11:30 at night, people won’t stay up. Everybody is cranky. I have been in too many of those meetings. … Not good for us or the public.”

After his 2017 election to the City Commission, Brody advocated for modifying the board’s meeting schedule to accommodate those members — such as himself, an attorney — who need to work during daytime hours. The commission then was holding its meetings on the first and third Mondays of the month from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. and then from 6 p.m. until the last bit of business was concluded. However, as the sessions began stretching longer and longer into some nights, commissioners finally agreed to move up the starting time to 1:30 p.m.

Brody was unable to win sufficient support for a more pronounced change in the schedule.

Then, with the Nov. 3, 2020 election of Erik “E” Arroyo to the commission, Brody found a staunch ally in achieving the shift he had been seeking. Arroyo, who is vice mayor, brought up the issue on Nov. 16, but — at staff’s request — the board members agreed to finalize the changes as part of their first session in 2021.

On Jan. 4, Auditor and Clerk Griggs recommended launching the new schedule in February, “to allow the public time to be informed of the changes and to allow for lead time for changes to legal advertising requirements and for the City Commission Rules of Procedure to be revised and adopted.”

Griggs opened the discussion by noting that staff had discussed options for how to conduct city business just at night.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch makes a statement during the Aug. 17, 2020 City Commission meeting. File image

In less than 20 minutes, all the commissioners except Jen Ahearn-Koch agreed to give the new schedule a try, acknowledging that some tweaks might be necessary, depending upon how the future sessions go.

As she had during the Nov. 16, 2020 meeting, Ahearn-Koch pointed out that, the previous year, when she was mayor, she had calculated that “we had an advertised amount of hours and we came in two full meetings under that time. So I don’t know what we’re trying to fix. … I don’t see how adding an extra day … will help anything.”

Further, Ahearn-Koch stressed, “We have quite a busy schedule [as commissioners],” outside the regular meetings. For example, she said, the city has about 53 neighborhood associations that conduct regular sessions of their own, to which commissioners are invited. Board members also attend Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce meetings, she noted, and, during the annual legislative sessions, travel to Tallahassee from time to time for lobbying. The shift in the board’s schedule, Ahearn-Koch continued, “is going to be cutting into that time … to do our job in the community.”

At three different points during her remarks, Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues, “I’m not in favor of this [change].”

“I’m in agreement with it,” Arroyo said. “I think we should also allow people to submit videos ahead of time and make them a part of the record.” Other cities around the nation do that, he pointed out. That enables the board members to view the comments before sessions begin; it makes meetings even more efficient, Arroyo added.

“We should allow people to be part of the public process,” he continued. “This is our duty here.”

Ahearn-Koch did voice support for the videos idea. “That’s an excellent way for the community to participate,” she said.

“I completely concur,” Mayor Brody told his colleagues. “A lot of the moves we’re doing are in the right direction and brings more transparency, more public participation …”

Brody also emphasized, “The vast majority of people do not have the ability to attend the City Commission meetings during the workday, including us. … It doesn’t do anybody any good to sit here from 1:30 in the afternoon to 10-plus at night. … There’s no predictability in that.”

Arriving at the proposal

City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs reads an agenda item into the record during the Sept. 16, 2020 City Commission meeting. File image

During her presentation, Griggs told the commissioners that staff had proposed the commission meetings be conducted from 5:30 to 10 p.m. on the first and third Mondays and Tuesdays. The memo staff provided in the board packet for the Jan. 4 session also explained, “If no major discussion items are necessary, there may be times when the Tuesday meeting is not utilized.”

Commissioner Liz Alpert suggested the later starting time. Those commissioners with what she called “day jobs” could finish up their work at 5 p.m., she continued, and then have an hour for dinner before the meetings begin.

“Good point,” Brody responded, referring to the 6 p.m. starting time.

Because city employees have the ability to work flexible hours, Griggs noted, staff believes the schedule modification should not affect them.

“Each of us … did have a long discussion about this,” Interim City Manager Marlon Brown told the commissioners, referring to himself, Griggs and City Attorney Robert Fournier. All three are Sarasota City Charter officials, which means they work at the pleasure of the board.

He also underscored Griggs’ point about staff members being able to use flex time. “We will report back to you in terms of any undue burden on staff,” Brown continued. “Right now, we believe we can make it work.”

In response to a question about his view of the proposed change, Fournier told the commissioners, “Just tell me when to show up and I’ll be here,” eliciting laughter.

Brown also extended his appreciation to Alpert for her suggestion about building in time for dinner.

Ahearn-Koch did ask that staff track the expenses of the meetings after the change takes effect, “to see if it saves money or costs more.”

Brody said that, in his discussions with staff members about the proposal, they had indicated “there is a nominal if any cost to the city.”

After Arroyo made the motion to implement the schedule modification, Ahearn-Koch asked whether he would accept a “friendly amendment” to conduct the public hearings and major discussions on Mondays and move the routine business matters to Tuesdays, in the event commissioners need to attend other meetings out of the city on Tuesdays.

“I appreciate your comments,” Arroyo told her, “but no.”

Brody did ask that staff keep “Tuesdays flexible.” If board members need to attend another event on a particular Tuesday, he said, staff should not schedule a commission meeting that day.