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Sarasota City Commission
Sarasota Thursday, Jul. 25, 2019 3 weeks ago

City Commission, Planning Board clash over code compliance

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Questions about procedures for enforcing city codes has caused tension among officials.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

At the July 1 City Commission meeting, an attorney for the city said the city’s Planning Board had been trying to address a topic outside of its purview throughout the year despite his repeated, strenuous warnings.

A senior city staff member said he was prepared to be fired if commissioners were unhappy with his department’s work.

Responding to criticism from some commissioners, multiple Planning Board members volunteered to resign — an offer other commissioners refused.

After nearly 90 minutes of contentious dialogue, the commission took no action, hopeful the city could address the topic at hand — code compliance — in a less charged forum.

But even after meeting, members of the Planning Board have leveled strong critiques against city leaders. Several took offense at the events of that July 1 meeting, defending the state-mandated advisory board as a hard-working body.

Board member Eileen Normile called Commissioner Hagen Brody “abusive,” described comments from city staff as “theatrical” and accused Director of Development Services Tim Litchet of using “his staff as props.” Board Member David Morriss called Litchet’s comments “transparent peacock displays of leadership at another’s expense.” Board member Kathy Kelley Ohlrich called the meeting a “gut-punch.”

“I am not looking forward to interacting with the staff that colluded in an attempt to publicly humiliate this board,” Normile wrote in a July 5 letter.

How, exactly, did the relationship between an advisory board and other city officials get to this point — and how do those involved move forward?

Bubbling up

The heated discussion July 1 was incited by questions about whether the city needed to improve its code enforcement regulations and procedures.

Some residents have raised concerns about the city’s management of construction sites, oversight of existing properties and enforcement of conditions tied to development approvals.

The Planning Board first broached the subject of code enforcement in December, when Normile suggested the board could study the city’s current practices and make recommendations for improvement. Other members were receptive and revisited the topic at four meetings between January and May.

Deputy City Attorney Michael Connolly said he did not believe the board had the authority to conduct such a study. The Planning Board is authorized to recommend changes to the city plan, which doesn’t dictate code compliance rules, Connolly first said in January.

His concerns persisted. In February, Connolly “said that he is going to beg the Planning Board one more time, please, not to talk about code enforcement again,” meeting minutes show.

The Planning Board pressed on. The board ultimately decided to ask the City Commission to address a series of issues it raised, which Connolly said the group had the ability to do.

“It just seems like a common-sense thing. It’s simple. Taking a look at it is appropriate.” — David Morriss

Board members said they heard from speakers at meetings who were concerned the code wouldn’t be properly enforced if a proposed project was approved. The board said they were troubled about authorizing a project with certain conditions if there was no mechanism for ensuring a property owner or business adhered to those conditions.

Board members also said they heard similar concerns on a community level, with Morriss citing his experience at a recent neighborhood association meeting.

“Obviously, it’s an important thing, and somebody needs to do something,” Morriss said.

City staffers signaled some discomfort even as they engaged with the Planning Board. In February, Litchet provided a series of recommendations for how the city could achieve some of the board’s goals, including a review of procedures related to construction and code enforcement.

But in April, Litchet said that email was prepared only in response to the Planning Board’s ongoing conversations. Four months after the conversation began, he said he was still unclear what precise problems the board wanted to address, and he expressed concern that staff would not be able to handle the workload the board was pursuing.

Boiling over

When the Planning Board presented its final recommendations to the City Commission in July, staff made its concerns explicit.

Connolly offered a “very strong recommendation” to the commission to reject the board report. Litchet said code compliance is a complex process and felt his department was successful based on the metrics he was aware of.

“I don’t think there is a true understanding of how demoralizing it’s been for staff, who is here with me today, to hear a commission-appointed board say for over four months that there’s some undefined problem with code compliance,” Litchet said.

Planning Board members were taken aback. Normile, also an attorney, challenged Connolly’s interpretation of applicable state statutes. She said the board was allowed to disagree with Connolly and that they followed his recommendations to present to the commission anyway. She said the board had no criticisms of staff. Members said they thought Litchet was supportive of their proposals.

“There was never an attack on anyone, and I’m frankly offended by what was just said,” Normile said at the meeting.

During the meeting, Brody admonished the Planning Board and said he thought the group’s actions risked jeopardizing its credibility.

“To me, it makes you all look too political for the job you’re supposed to be doing,” Brody said.

“I don’t think there is a true understanding of how demoralizing it’s been for staff to hear a commission-appointed board say for over four months that there’s some undefined problem with code compliance.” — Tim Litchet

Several Planning Board members were particularly insulted by the idea their behavior was politically motivated. Normile challenged anyone to watch the board’s meetings and come away with the conclusion the members weren’t committed to diligently operating within the standards the city dictates.

She said Brody’s comments during the meeting suggested he was ignorant about how the Planning Board functions.

“For him to (critique) Planning Board members for doing things they don’t do is pretty sad,” Normile said. “It just means he doesn’t understand how things work, yet he is quite free to criticize and even question the credibility of the Planning Board. I object to that.”

Mayor Liz Alpert — another target of criticism from the Planning Board following the meeting — said she was uncomfortable pursuing the board’s recommendations based on staff comments, although she said the board generally does good work. If an issue exists, she asked residents to make her aware of it, and she said she believes it’s the commission’s job to pursue it further.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch defended the Planning Board and indicated she was interested in many of the same lines of inquiry. A former Planning Board member, she said she has also wondered how the city applies the conditions associated with an approved project.

“This is not an attack on city staff, ” Ahearn-Koch said. “It’s just a question of: How are these things enforced?”

Commissioner Willie Shaw said he felt the Planning Board was well intentioned but that the conversation got too emotional. He suggested moving on without any concrete action and leaving the city to resolve any outstanding issues — both procedural and interpersonal — in the future.

Moving forward

City Manager Tom Barwin said he intends to speak with both Normile and Litchet over the next month to prepare for future commission discussion regarding the issues the Planning Board raised.

Despite Connolly’s commentary, City Attorney Robert Fournier said he didn’t see any legal issues with the Planning Board’s attempts to broach the subject at the July 1 meeting.

“I think they went about it the appropriate way,” Fournier said. “They got together a board report and they made the inquiry. They probably weren’t as happy as they might have been with the response they got, but I don’t think that should stop everyone from doing it again.”

The city did not make Litchet available for comment.

Planning Board members said the meeting with the commission — and the fallout — wouldn’t affect their work.

“We don’t pay attention to politics,” Normile said. “We don’t pay attention to anything except what the law requires.”

One Planning Board member was not offended about the July 1 meeting: architect Damien Blumetti. He opposed the Planning Board’s decision to pursue a conversation about code enforcement, but he said he respected the reasoning of the other board members. Still, he was hopeful everyone could leave the discussion in the past.

“I looked at it as constructive criticism, and I moved on from it,” Blumetti said of the critiques from other city officials. “I think it’s time for everyone to move on from it and focus on the upcoming agenda items.”

“I think it’s time for everyone to move on from it.” — Damien Blumetti

In an emailed statement, Brody said he thought all parties could move on. He maintained his characterization of the board’s behavior as political and said his focus is on other issues.

“I don’t know what was said in response to our constructive criticism at the meeting, but I wish the Planning Board members would focus on their work instead of using it as a political platform to grandstand for future commission runs,” Brody said.

Christine Robinson, executive director of the business think-tank Argus Foundation, agreed with Brody’s characterization of the Planning Board’s behavior as political. Although board members insisted they were well-intentioned, Robinson said the Planning Board was acting as if elected, rather than advisory board members. She noted that two of the board members had been City Commission candidates in the past.

Robinson underlined that city staff, a city attorney and city commissioners all said they believed the Planning Board’s behavior was out of bounds.

“But they have righteous indignation over the conversation?” Robinson asked.

Three speakers at the July 1 commission meeting said they felt the inquiry into code compliance was warranted and urged the city to examine its policies and procedures. Patrick O’Brien, a resident of the 100 Central condominium building who has repeatedly voiced concern about proposed downtown businesses that plan to serve alcohol, said the Planning Board was responding to feedback he and others had provided. 

“Based on my sense of the community, there’s no confidence that the code is being enforced,” O'Brien said.

City commissioners have expressed a desire to continue to look into the issue, though it’s unclear what direction any discussion may take.

Among Planning Board members, comments expressing hope about the future were often tempered with reservations — and sometimes more serious concerns.

“If a citizen asked me, ‘Do I have confidence the city is operating in a continuous improvement mode and looks for input?’” Planning Board member Patrick Gannon said. “My answer would be no.”

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