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Council's new cast becomes chummy

St. Petersburg council members are such pals now, lawyers fear they will violate the Sunshine Law over dinner.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 28, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- The three friends gathered for lunch at the newly opened Atlanta Bread Company Bakery Cafe.

The conversation bounced from marriages to kids to parties to the bakery's great sandwiches.

It was like any other lunch gathering in downtown St. Petersburg, with one big difference. James Bennett, John Bryan and Virginia Littrell are members of the St. Petersburg City Council, that elected body better known for its bickering and posturing than friendship and camaraderie.

More than a year ago, the City Council needed 21 ballots just to elect a chairman. Now, with five new members elected last March, this group not only gets along, but it hangs out together.

"This council travels as a herd," Littrell said, taking a bite of her panini chicken sandwich in the crowded restaurant.

But this new era of council closeness may take it dangerously close to violating the state's Sunshine Law, the statute that requires open records and meetings so taxpayers can keep tabs on government. At least one council member tries to steer clear of the council get-togethers because he worries he might run afoul of the law.

Other council members are vehement that they never discuss city business when they're alone. They just enjoy each others' company.

"It's hard because as politicians we're so used to talking," said City Council member Bennett. "You'll get started on something and you have to remind people, "Hey, we can't talk about that'. . . but I believe we have plenty of things to talk about and not get close to the issues."

Still, all this council togetherness has made the city's attorneys a little nervous. After the Atlanta Bread Company lunch with a reporter, one of the city's attorneys, Mark Winn, queried council members to make sure they hadn't discussed any city business that might come before them. They hadn't, but Winn reminded them, as he has on numerous occasions, to be careful anyway.

"This council is more social," said City Attorney John Wolfe. "They do more things together, and we have to guard against an inadvertent violation of the Sunshine Law. . . . I know everybody slips into work-type conversation, and I need to keep reminding them they can't do that."

It hasn't always been this way. Some of the previous councils had members who could barely be civil to each other.

Former City Council member Kathleen Ford, who lost to Rick Baker in the mayor's race, was known for rolling her eyes and hurling insults when issues didn't go her way. There were so many disagreements, the meetings sometimes stretched to 13 and 14 hours long. There was always tension in the room when the last council gathered at City Hall to have lunch or dinner during meeting breaks.

That group never went out socially.

Then last April, city voters elected five new members. For two months straight, Bennett, Littrell, Bryan, Kriseman and Earnest Williams spent practically every night together on the campaign trail. It got so Kriseman could do a pretty good impression of Bennett's stump speech. And both Bennett and Kriseman could do a pretty good Rick Baker.

"To their credit, the fabulous five, they campaigned together talking about the issues, yes, but then they also became close friends," said City Council member Bill Foster. "So they actually have something in common that's not City Council."

The five newest members said they heard the same line repeatedly during the campaign. Stop the fighting. Get along.

"That got drilled in over and over again," Littrell said. "That's the foundation this is all on."

Seven months later, council members frequently meet together for lunch, even on days when the council isn't meeting. Some of them have gathered for dinner with their spouses. Several of the men have played golf together.

Littrell and council Chairwoman Rene Flowers, the only women on the council, have taken early morning walks together. Sometimes, a bunch of members will pile into Bennett's Plymouth Voyager and hit community events together. Some of them have had drinks and appetizers together.

Even Flowers and Lasita, members of the previous City Council, join the fun.

Only the good-humored Foster avoids playing with other council members. Yes, he once joined the group for drinks (he had iced tea) and appetizers at Harvey's a month ago after a particularly grueling meeting in which the council passed the city's budget. It was just two days after the Sept. 11 attacks and the group had a thoughtful conversation about what the U.S. reaction should be. He also played golf with Bennett, Kriseman and Lasita during an employee benefit tournament.

But Foster said he's a member of the old school. He likes his colleagues, gets along with them, but doesn't think he should become buddies with them.

"I consider myself a friend of all of my colleagues, but I never want -- and this sounds hideous -- my friendship with them to get in the way of good government and doing the people's work," Foster said.

Foster said he doesn't want to be in a position where he's voting for a law just because he's worried about offending another council member. He also doesn't trust himself to keep his mouth shut about city business.

"I'm so blasted forgetful, I try to avoid situations where we're together like that because I know I have the potential of being loose-tongued," Foster said. "So it's just easier to stay out of the situation, and then I don't have to worry about it."

Florida has a tradition of open government dating back to 1967, when the state passed the Government in the Sunshine laws. Among the provisions: government officials could not discuss decisions behind closed doors.

"The underlying principle is that for a democracy to operate most effectively, its citizens need to be informed about government decisionmaking and operations," said Sandra Chance, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

In the early years, some government officials trying to follow the law were so strict, they construed it to mean they couldn't even talk to each other. But several attorney general opinions -- including one in 1989 that addressed the situation of a married couple who served on the same elected body -- have changed that.

Wolfe, the city attorney, said council members should not discuss any city business that is likely to come before them, but it's acceptable to talk about city issues that are not likely to require action.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, said she recommends elected officials not discuss any city business at all.

Pam Akin, Clearwater's city attorney, said she tells Clearwater commissioners to minimize outside contact together.

"I tend to be fairly conservative and recommend to them that they not do a lot of socializing, but that is not so much a legal opinion as it is an opinion based on perceptions," Akin said.

But even Petersen acknowledged the council members have a right to socialize.

"We can't expect that simply because we elect them to office . . . to be prisoners in their own homes for fear they might run into other (council members)," she said.

Council members, for their part, see a benefit to their friendship.

"What happens is you get a good healthy dialogue on issues rather than attacks," Kriseman said.

"A person being attacked is going to be put on a defensive front. It gives us a chance to have a healthier dialogue on issues and that's important.'

Council members also point out that they are more involved in community events as a group. For example, Bennett is involved in Habitat for Humanity and he has asked fellow members to help build a house. And Kriseman got council members together for the Paws on Parade Pet Walk Saturday.

That's another thing most council members have in common. Only Williams doesn't have a dog. Foster has a Sheltie, Flowers has a Rottweiler/shepherd mix, Kriseman has a yellow Labrador, Bennett has some sort of hound mix, Littrell has a greyhound, Bryan has a Jack Russell terrier and Lasita has a cocker spaniel.

St. Petersburg council members are such pals now, lawyers fear they will violate the Sunshine Law over dinner.

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