Commission Lobbying Trip Cancelled
Did Commissioners Violate State Law When They Went in Past Years?
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.
Having been in Tallahassee and living the process during legislative session, not sure that a “road trip” to Tallahassee by all the commissioners yields much in the way of benefits. Some may say we got something out of it but does sending five there benefit the City of Winter Park…..I doubt it. In addition does the City of Winter Park pay a lobbyist; if so they can be the front with Commissioner making calls to legislators.
I can say with knowledge that it is VERY hard to get the attention of legislators during legislative session. The best way to engage is meet then in their home district.
Having said all that I have to wonder if some individual(s) are yearning to get into the sausage factory in Tallahassee and the benefit may be longer term political connections…..for that they should be on their own.
All Commissioners who traveled to Tallahassee together in prior years should reimburse the City treasury for their travel expenses, immediately. The trips were Winter Park taxpayer funded junkets that the City Attorney says were in violation of State law.
I’m amazed that Commissioners attempted to paper over their rather serious offense with a resolution. Thank goodness that a lot of people rose up in opposition to their anti-transparency scheme and forced them to vote it down on Monday.
Where is the State Attorney on this matter? Has anyone been arrested yet?
For the record, former Winter Park Commissioners who traveled to Tallahassee did so with the full knowledge and consent of previous City Attorneys. The present City Attorney simply has a different interpretation of this law, and the Commissioners voted to follow his advice.
As for “a lot of people” rising up in opposition — don’t know how I missed that. I was there and didn’t spot a single one.
If that is true, please provide a link to the document wherein he authorized the trips in previous years. My guess is that the Commission will not be able to provide you with such a document. Nor will they be able to provide you with a document proving that they ever even raised the question with him before traveling. Because Florida Statute 286.0113 clearly lists all the exemptions to the Sunshine Law, and nothing resembling Commissioners prior years’ junkets to Tallahassee is even remotely applicable.
At least one Commissioner (Seidel) plainly stated at the City Commission meeting, that he had been contacted prior to Monday’s meeting by at least two major organizations who opposed the resolution. Remember, a resolution doesn’t appear on the City Commission meeting agenda without at least a majority of Commissioners eager to approve it. So some serious public opposition clearly occurred between the time it appeared on the agenda and Monday’s meeting. Most public comment is done by telephone and email to Commissioners and never is announced at the actual City Commission meetings, nor does it appear in the minutes of the meetings.
Commissioners are in full “spin” mode. You won’t get many facts from them on this matter. Just spin.