Change approved on 3-2 vote
Starting with their regular meeting on Nov. 5, the Sarasota City commissioners will begin their afternoon sessions at 1:30 p.m., they agreed on a 3-2 vote this week.
That will be an hour earlier than the 2:30 p.m. opening specified in the city’s Rules of Procedure.
Mayor Liz Alpert, Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and Commissioner Hagen Brody approved the change, while Commissioners Shelli Freeland Eddie and Willie Shaw opposed it.
Last year, after they found many of their meetings lasting well into the night — with more than few extending past midnight — the board members talked about ways to conclude their agendas earlier.
On Sept. 5, 2017, then-Vice Mayor Liz Alpert first brought up concerns about the effects of the long hours on staff, the board members and the public. That session, in fact, did not adjourn until 12:05 a.m. on Sept. 6, 2017.
The commissioners revived the discussion on Oct. 2, 2017.
However, they reached no consensus after those two discussions.
Finally, on July 10, during an informal City Commission meeting, the majority indicated a willingness to entertain the idea of advancing the starting time of the afternoon session by one hour. They asked staff to look into that possibility and related considerations, such as setting 9 p.m. as the ending time for meetings and continuing agenda items, if necessary, until the next regular session.
Each evening session begins at 6 p.m.
During their regular meeting on Oct. 1, City Attorney Robert Fournier referenced the July comments, noting that the city’s Rules of Procedure call for the afternoon session of a regular meeting to begin at 2:30 p.m. and end at 4:30 p.m.
However, he said, the Rules of Procedure also give the commission the option of waiving or suspending those rules. If the board wanted to adjust the starting time of the afternoon session, he continued, it could do so with a vote.
More in-depth changes to the Rules of Procedure would necessitate the drafting and then passage of a resolution, Fournier added.
Alpert and Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch both indicated that they would like a more detailed discussion about other concerns regarding the city’s Rules of Procedure. Perhaps the board’s next informal meeting — set for 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 9 — would be the best forum for that, Alpert said.
An attorney, Freeland Eddie told her colleagues that she would have to miss that session because of a scheduled appearance in court. However, she continued, she would provide her comments via email in advance of that session.
Then, when Alpert asked about a motion for changing the starting time for regular meetings to 1:30 p.m., Commissioner Brody made it and Ahearn-Koch seconded it.
The informal City Commission meeting on Oct. 9 will be held in the SRQ Media Studio in the City Hall Annex, which is located at 1565 First St. in downtown Sarasota. It is scheduled to conclude at 5 p.m.
The July 10 discussion
Last year, when Alpert raised the issue about the long meetings, Brody reported that he had conflicting views about changing the starting time. However, he was the one who broached the subject on July 10, saying, “We’ve had a couple of late ones recently.”
He suggested trying to create a “more compact schedule” to ensure shorter sessions, similar to the scheduling of matters in the Florida Legislature.
As she had last year, Alpert proposed beginning the regular meetings at 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m. Sessions ending late at night, she pointed out, have led to a considerable overtime pay and compensatory time for staff members. “That’s costing us a lot of money.”
As for past arguments that holding meetings in the daytime would prevent people from attending them, Alpert continued, “I think it’s more of a hindrance” to people to have to stay until 10 p.m.
“Many, many other cities do this without a problem,” she added of setting an earlier starting time.
Freeland Eddie countered that the commissioners do not adhere to their own rules regarding the flow of discussion. When one of them is more passionate about an issue, she said, that person tends to talk more about it. “I think if we follow procedure, we may get a little better.”
As for moving sessions to the morning: “I work,” Freeland Eddie added. “You all don’t pay that much,” she continued, referring to board salaries. “This is a part-time job.”
The current annual salary for a city commissioner, as determined by the City Charter and the Florida Statutes, is $27,504.34, city Communications Specialist Jason Bartolone told The Sarasota News Leader in an Oct. 2 email.
Members of many local government bodies that have morning starting times either are considered to be in full-time positions, Freeland Eddie pointed out during the July discussion, or the local governments provide higher salaries for them.
Furthermore, “A lot of folks do not have administrative jobs [in the city of Sarasota],” she continued, so they are unable to leave work to attend a City Commission meeting.
“People just talk to hear themselves talk,” Commissioner Shaw told his colleagues. “That’s where our issues come. … It’s not necessary to elaborate over and over.”
“We certainly can look at tightening up the discussion, if possible,” Alpert agreed.
“I do think that we can all sort of follow Robert’s Rules of Order,” Ahearn-Koch said. Those rules call for no board member to comment more than twice on an issue before a vote, she pointed out. “Maybe we all need a refresher in Robert’s Rules.”
“Have we formally adopted Robert’s Rules?” Brody asked.
“Yes,” City Attorney Fournier replied.
He is not in favor of morning meetings, Shaw added, as his constituents “don’t have the luxury of being in a meeting that is impacting them [if it is held in the daytime]. … I’m not one for moving hours.”
Alpert reiterated her view that attending a daytime meeting “is less of a problem [for the public] than being there at 10 or 11 o’clock at night.”
She referenced a photo she had seen of a daytime Sarasota County Commission meeting, with the chambers full.
“Did you see many of the people in the working class?” Shaw asked her.
“We don’t see that many people in the working class in any of our meetings,” Alpert replied.
“That’s not true,” he told her.
As a neighborhood association leader prior to her 2017 election to the commission, Ahearn-Koch said, “I was happy that the meetings were at night.” She also has her own business, and she is a mother, she pointed out. Thus, nighttime sessions worked well for her, she added.
She could understand points Alpert had made, Ahearn-Koch said, but “I don’t want to make it more difficult for [the public] to speak to us.”
Brody then announced that he would be willing to consider moving up the starting time of the afternoon session to 1:30 p.m.
Finally, the board members agreed to let staff review the Rules of Procedure and come back to them with comments for further discussion.