Why was the City Commission’s annual lobbying trip to Tallahassee cancelled?
Last year’s trip resulted in a contribution of state funds to the restoration of Mead Gardens, and the year before that, funds to assist with electric utility undergrounding. Priorities for this year’s foray included projects such as the acquisition of Howell Branch Creek, green energy generation and the new library. Legislative matters to be discussed included pension reform and dedicated funding for Commuter Rail. For full list, click Here
City Attorney: “Don’t Go”
The decision to cancel, announced in an email to Commissioners from City Manager Randy Knight, was based on advice from City Attorney A. Kurt Ardaman. Ardaman advised that such a trip violates statutes governing the city’s jurisdiction and carries the potential for violations of the Sunshine Law.
In addition to representing Winter Park, Ardaman and his firm, Fishback Dominick, serve the cities of Longwood, Winter Garden and DeBary. Spokesmen for all three cities stated that their Commissioners do not travel to Tallahassee together.
Through a spokesperson, Ardaman stated that the question of lobbying trips for commissioners from these cities had not come up, but that if it did, he would advise against it.
Governing Bodies Can’t Meet Outside Political Boundaries
At the January 11 Commission meeting, Ardaman stated, “Clearly, there are cities that go to Tallahassee, and they have meetings with their legislators and their lobbyists . . . . But the law is what it is, and just because cities do that does not mean that cities do not violate the law. There is actually a statute that spells out when it is . . . allowed for governing bodies of cities to meet outside their political boundaries.”
Ardaman explained that this statute limits such meetings to two specific situations. One is when a city has fewer than 500 residents; the other is when two governing bodies – such as a city and a county – meet to discuss matters of common interest, and those meetings should occur within the county at issue. There is no other exception for a city governing body to meet outside its political boundaries.
Potential for Sunshine Violation
Ardaman said, in addition to the jurisdictional issue, there is the possibility of a Sunshine Law violation.
The Sunshine Law requires that all commission meetings be publicly noticed 48 hours in advance, and that meetings of two or more commissioners may be attended by the public. So, if two or more commissioners travel to Tallahassee, any member of the public is free to ride along and attend the meetings in the state capital.
Ardaman said that he and other City Attorneys agree that these restrictions, however well intentioned, pose an issue the Florida Legislature should address.
Resolution Proposed at Next Commission Meeting
At the following Commission meeting January 25, a draft resolution was brought forth asking Florida legislators to revise the law so that Commissioners can conduct business outside of the city’s political boundaries.
The Commissioners were united in their opposition to the resolution, though each had his or her own widely differing reasons.
Seidel: Let’s Talk to the Experts
Commissioner Greg Seidel suggested an information meeting with representatives from the Sunshine Coalition or the First Amendment Foundation to get clarification on the law.
Cooper: Let’s Build Coalition
Commissioner Carolyn Cooper observed that sending such aresolution to Tallahassee without first building a coalition of interested parties would be premature.
Sprinkel: Bad Idea
Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel was unequivocal in her opposition to the resolution. She noted that the legislators in Tallahassee were dealing with far more important issues.
McMacken: Throwing a Piece of Paper at It Is No Solution
Commissioner Tom McMacken deplored the situation that prevents Commissioners from going to Tallahassee to lobby on behalf of the City, but could not support the resolution as it stood.
Leary: One Person Can Do It
Mayor Steve Leary agreed with Commissioner Sprinkel, that the Florida legislators had “bigger fish to fry.” He stated that the City’s priorities are set, he is willing to take them to Tallahassee, and that one person can handle the task.
The Commission voted 4 to 1 to table the resolution indefinitely. Mayor Leary cast the dissenting vote.