Sarasota City Commissioner Paul Caragiulo had just a couple of minutes to present six major legislative priorities on behalf of the city to the county’s state legislative delegation Wednesday.
It was a small window to communicate a stance on issues that could substantially affect the city’s future. Without pension reform, the city’s long-term financial outlook is dire. If the communication services tax is repealed, the city loses $4 million in annual revenue. Proposed legislation prohibiting red-light cameras would lose the city more than $1 million, too.
Caragiulo encouraged presenting as few priorities as possible for maximum emphasis — and two of the six major priorities have drawn his ire. One, which Vice Mayor Willie Shaw proposed, endorses the repeal of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, and the other, which Commissioner Susan Chapman proposed, would offer protection from lawsuits for members of neighborhood associations.
“One, I don’t agree with it in principle,” Caragiulo said. “Two, it’s sort of just distracting from things that are pressing for the city financially.”
Chapman said her priority — which would target strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP — stems from a 2006 case against the Bayou Oaks Neighborhood Association.
SLAPP cases, filed against those who petition the government or speak about a subject of the public interest, are often seen as jeopardizing free speech. Rather than bear the expenses of a legal defense, the defendant could cease his efforts regardless of whether the plaintiff is likely to win.
Anti-SLAPP legislation already offers protection from these lawsuits to homeowners association and condominium association members; Chapman wants to see that protection extended.
“If there had been anti-SLAPP legislation protecting neighborhoods, it would have been dismissed immediately,” Chapman said of the Bayou Oaks case. “Instead, it went on for two years.”
Chapman was not enthused by the fact that Caragiulo, far from passionate about the anti-SLAPP legislation, would be advocating for the cause in front of the legislative delegation. She disagreed with the extent to which his personal outlook seemed to be affecting how he was preparing to present the legislative priorities.
“I think he considers himself somehow the lobbyist for the city, but I don’t think he is,” Chapman said.
Caragiulo said a major reason he didn’t support the anti-SLAPP legislation as a major priority was because it wasn’t an issue already on the table among the state legislators.
“You’re asking, in essence, the legislators to draft a bill,” Caragiulo said. “That’s not normally the way it works.”
Caragiulo and Chapman do share some common ground, though: Both commissioners questioned the utility of Wednesday’s meeting. Caragiulo described the hearings as “pretty perfunctory” and said substantive conversation was infrequent. He said conducting more serious, effective dialogue with state politicians was an ongoing process.
Chapman said state legislators would be more motivated by appeals from their constituents than by the priorities of a single city commission.
“I’m a little skeptical about why even have legislative priorities; they consider us five citizens,” Chapman said. “They pat us on the head and do what they want.”
2014 Major Sarasota Legislative Priorities:
• Support legislation that provides comprehensive firefighter and police officer pension reform.
• Support state funding for homeless programs and aid groups that oversee them.
• Support the repeal of the Stand Your Ground statute.
• Support legislation that will extend anti-SLAPP protection to neighborhood associations.
• Oppose legislation that restricts or eliminates the city’s authority to levy or expand the communications services tax.
• Oppose legislation that would repeal the city’s authority to use red-light cameras.