Our View: Lessons from 'the vote'

 

Our View: Lessons from 'the vote'

 

Date: June 23, 2010
by: Matt Walsh

 
 

It’s difficult to erase the ending to last week’s Longboat Key Town Commission meeting. It was surreal.

Everyone — including the commissioners — had the look of shock. Confused. No one was smiling, not Islandside Property Owners Coalition President Bob White, not his attorney, Mike Furen. No one.

Was this a bad dream?

If only it were.

Fortunately for all involved, last week’s session at Temple Beth Israel was only the first reading of an ordinance — an ordinance approving a Longboat Key Club redevelopment plan that no one wanted. Thank the Lord everyone will have a second chance next Monday.

And from the close of last Monday’s meeting until next Monday’s meeting, all of the parties will have had enough time to reflect and replay the first meeting and learn from it. There were several lessons.

To begin with, Longboat Key Commissioner Hal Lenobel was right. Commissioners were discussing Mayor George Spoll’s proposed ordinance, which would have removed two condominium buildings from north of Longboat Club Road to one building on the south parcel and moved the proposed wellness center from the south to the north parcel. No one was happy with the idea.

Lenobel made two astute points:

• “Isn’t that dictatorial?” he asked.

• If none of the parties involved, including the commissioners like the proposed ordinance, “why would we even think about passing it?” he asked.

Touche!

With both questions, Lenobel was referring to Mayor Spoll’s proposed ordinance, which he asked the town attorney to draft the weekend before the meeting. Although created with good intentions — to try to create a compromise acceptable to everyone (an impossible task, by the way) — Spoll’s ordinance gutted the plan the Key Club presented to the Town Commission, essentially pitching it in the trash. In effect, Spoll took it upon himself to pre-empt a previously drafted ordinance that was submitted to the commission, the very ordinance that contained the plans the Longboat Key Club worked on for five years and for which it sought approval.

Thus, it prompted Lenobel’s question: dictatorial?

While it may have sounded rhetorical, it cut to the quick. Call it Lenobel’s lesson. With that short question, he said a lot, namely: It’s not right for commissioners to re-craft a development application, especially at the last minute. The Key Club — any applicant for that matter — is entitled to have its submitted proposal voted on, up or down. Let the applicant’s plan stand or fall on its merits; conditions for final approval can always come later. It’s not a commissioner’s job to change it. It’s not his job to dictate how he wants it. In these instances, his job is to vote “yay” or “nay.”

Most of the other lessons from that now-infamous Monday meeting fall under procedural machinations. These may seem juvenile, simplistic and condescending, but all of Longboat Key witnessed that these lessons are worth reviewing:

• Allow ample time for review. Hindsight tells us that when considering such monumental decisions as a $400 million, far-reaching proposal, dropping a 30-page re-drafted ordinance on the commissioners’ desks an hour before the meeting inevitably will lead to trouble, if not disaster. Indeed, nearly all of the commissioners expressed concern they hadn’t read the details of the mayor’s newly proposed ordinance and were skeptical of voting on it.

• Ask for clarification again and again. We’ll concede with Commissioner Lynn Larson. The final 15 minutes of the June 14 commission meeting were confusing. That’s no excuse for not asking for clarification.
Observers of government meetings often see elected officials proposing motions and amendments that are vague, verbose and confusing. It’s incumbent on commissioners to make sure they know on what they’re voting. Likewise, it’s the duty of the presiding officer to check with his colleagues as well — “Does everyone understand the motion?” “Will the clerk please read the motion again.”

• Spell out the plan and the agenda. In most instances, as you sit as an observer, running a meeting doesn’t look that difficult. But there is more to it than meets the eye; sometimes, much more.

It was readily apparent that Mayor Spoll in last Monday’s meeting was extraordinarily careful and ever mindful of being fair in how he maneuvered the meeting among all of the parties. But at the crucial moment, the taut twine that held the meeting together for the previous four hours snapped. There was a flash, followed by a fog of bewilderment.

To have that moment back again, we’ll bet Mayor Spoll would have done what we expect he will do at the next Key Club meeting: Spell out the agenda, step by step, before the meeting begins and prior to the crucial vote.

It’s like sports. In the final game of the World Series or for the championship of the World Cup, you want the participants to win or lose on the merits of their play, not on an errant call by the referee.

+ St. Denis should open up

Longboat Key Town Manager Bruce St. Denis is not exactly creating a good feeling about his management of Town Hall.

St. Denis expressed a high degree of skepticism last week over the methods that might be used by members of a new citizens committee that will examine Town Hall’s operations.

To be sure, no one likes to have his work criticized. We all get that. Everyone can empathize with St. Denis’ hesitation and skepticism to let the citizens committee members speak privately with town employees. Said
St. Denis:

“My concern is it’s my responsibility to run town departments, and you seem to think there’s a benefit that will occur if I am not there during these discussions. If someone puts opinions out in the public record in the form of these reviews, problems can begin to form between employees.”

Points taken.

But let’s give some credit to the citizens committee members. They will be qualified enough to know the sensitivity of their discussions with town employees and the requirements to be professional. Confidentiality and discreet behavior are always paramount in these situations.

Nonetheless, St. Denis conveys the impression that he doth protest too much. Taxpayers get the feeling he’s telling them: “This is my house. I run it. I report to the Town Commission. Stay out.”

This reminds us: You build your own nest. Why did town commissioners agree to form the committee to begin with? Because they sense the town manager hasn’t been as aggressive as he should be addressing efficiencies at Town Hall — particularly in light of more upcoming budget cuts.

This situation also reminds us of an interesting contrast — between Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton and St. Denis. Earlier this week, we observed Thaxton tell a group of community leaders in Sarasota he would welcome the Tallahassee-based Florida TaxWatch to come into Sarasota and perform an evaluation of county government.

TaxWatch, a 30-year-old, private, non-partisan research institute, is famous in Tallahassee for watchdogging taxpayers’ money. Its recommendations in its first 20 years saved Florida taxpayers $6.2 billion. In recent years, TaxWatch has performed evaluations of government operations in Duval (Jacksonville) and Escambia (Pensacola) counties, producing definitive lists of steps that would make those governments more efficient and save taxpayers millions.

Commissioner Thaxton is all for a TaxWatch evaluation in Sarasota. As he said: 1) It would tell him and other county officials where to save money; and 2) It would make him look good — for taking the steps on behalf of taxpayers.

St. Denis would raise his standing if he could see that it’s to his benefit to open the doors to Town Hall.

CONTACT TAXWATCH

Florida TaxWatch can be hired to conduct studies in counties and municipalities to determine how and where local governments can save money and become more efficient.

• To learn more, go to: Taxwatch.org

• Contact: Dominic Calabro, chief executive officer, Florida Taxwatch, 106 N. Bronough St., Tallahassee, Fla., 32301; 850-222-5052; dcalabro@floridataxwatch.org.

SNAPSHOT OF THE SENATE CANDIDATES

Put a political candidate on stage for 20 minutes, and you can size them up quickly — and pretty accurately. Here’s what we saw last week at the U.S. Senate candidate forum before the Florida Press Association at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. The best of the bunch?

Gov. Charlie Crist
(Indep.)
He’s passionate. Unfortunately, he is more puff than stuff. He likes to be liked; one day he’s left, next he’s right.

Jeff Greene (Democrat)
Greene wants to end special-interest politics, but on taxes, he’s a Taxachusetts Democrat.

Kendrick Meek (Democrat)
Meek recognizes Washington needs to quit spending, but he was among those who pushed for more sub-loans.

Marco Rubio (Republican)
Rubio understands better than the rest the consequences of policy choices on our nation’s economic health.

Alex Snitker (Libertarian)
He blew it when he crashed the forum. (He wasn’t invited.) Everyone talked of his foaming mouth.
 

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