A Times Editorial
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 10, 2001
A request by Clearwater City Commissioner Ed Hart to sit in on internal city staff meetings has evolved into a dispute that interim City Manager Bill Horne has asked the full City Commission to mediate in a public meeting next week.
Although it is not unusual for city commissioners to observe city operations from time to time by, for example, touring the wastewater treatment plant or riding along with a police officer on patrol, it is very uncommon -- perhaps even unheard-of in recent Clearwater history -- for an elected city commissioner to ask to attend meetings of the city staff.
Hart, who is serving his first term, has said he wants to attend the meetings so he can be in on the "front end" of issues and not be dependent on staff reports to the City Commission. He initially asked for a schedule of staff meetings where annual department budget requests would be developed. Then he said he wanted to attend meetings of the staff at which three proposed redevelopment projects at Clearwater Beach would be discussed.
Horne may be relatively new to this business of managing a city, but he has been around long enough to know that under Clearwater's city-manager form of government, elected officials don't generally get involved in administrative matters like staff meetings.
Horne was concerned that Hart's presence in staff meetings could impede the staff's work or intimidate employees. It would be something akin to a member of a corporation's board of directors suddenly wanting to be present when workers met to do their jobs.
City employees work for Horne, not for the City Commission. In staff meetings, would they be put in the position of instead responding to Hart, an influential elected official?
Another concern was that if Hart were invited to attend staff meetings, other commissioners would have to be invited as well. And if more than one of them showed up, the meeting might violate the state's Sunshine Law. The meeting might have to be canceled, advertised as a public meeting and held at a later date.
Horne asked City Attorney Pam Akin for a legal opinion about whether city staff meetings are required to be open meetings under the Sunshine Law. Akin concluded that they are not.
Hart is unhappy with the answers he has received from Horne and Akin and still wants to attend the meetings. This week he told Akin to research whether there is any law that would keep commissioners from attending staff meetings if they didn't say anything. Next, will Akin be asked to determine whether it is okay for commissioners to pass notes to staff members, as long as they don't open their mouths?
This dispute between Hart and Horne is a distraction at a time when more important business -- consideration of three massive redevelopment proposals for Clearwater Beach -- is on the table.
The City Commission approved the framework under which those projects are being handled: A team made up of Akin, Planning Director Ralph Stone and outside consultant Charlie Siemon is negotiating on the city's behalf with the three development groups in private sessions -- a not uncommon process for local governments.
The three negotiators call city commissioners privately to report their progress and get commissioners' input. The negotiators also report to a team of senior city staff members and get the team's advice about how to proceed. Next week in a public meeting, the negotiators will report to the City Commission and the public the status of the negotiations and explain the current project proposals. The commissioners will approve their work so far or tell them to start over.
From the beginning of his term, Hart has been a detail-oriented commissioner who asks good questions in public meetings and wants more background information than other members of the commission. Whether motivated by lack of trust in the city staff or just a desire for even more information, Hart's request to attend staff meetings steps over a line Clearwater voters drew when they approved the city's charter.
The charter is absolutely clear that there is a division of powers in city government. The City Commission is supposed to be a legislative body, approving laws and making policy. The city manager is the chief executive officer of the city, responsible for managing the city staff and a host of other duties.
The charter also notes specifically that city commissioners "shall deal with city officers and employees who are subject to the direction and supervision of the city manager solely through the city manager. Neither the commission nor its members shall give orders to any such officer or employee, either publicly or privately."
The message that the full City Commission should convey to Hart seems clear: There is nothing wrong with a city commissioner wanting to know more, but the standard ways of acquiring information -- through conversation with the city manager, reports from city staff and asking questions in public meetings -- should be sufficient. In the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing, the city staff must be allowed to do its job without the direct involvement of commissioners.