Against Mayor’s Opposition, Palm Coast Council Discovers Public Input at Workshops
FlaglerLive | February 16, 2016
It is no surprise to the relatively small group of people who follow the inner workings of the Palm Coast City Council that when it comes to public participation, it is the most hermetic of local governments. Workshops are where most of the substantial business of the council is conducted, short of votes. It’s where most issues are analyzed, debated and decided, with the city administration often driving the discussion and almost always framing it through its own proposals, presentations and draft ordinances. The public, for whose benefit the council ostensibly does its work, has never been allowed to address the council at workshops.
Public participation at workshops is routinely welcome at the county commission, which holds frequent workshops, and in Flagler Beach, on the rare occasions when that city holds workshops. While the allowance is routine at the county, it is more on a case-by-case basis in Flagler Beach: that commission has never been heavy-handed when it comes to public participation. That’s also the case with the Flagler County School Board, whose workshops are rarely attended by more than school staffers.
But the Palm Coast rule against public participation has bee ironclad, largely because of Mayor Jon Netts, who’s run the meetings for nine years, and has always opposed public participation at workshops. City Manager Jim Landon’s enthusiasm for public input has also never been remarkable.
That’s about to change, under pressure from other council members, in the latest reflection of a changing council since the arrival of council members Steven Nobile and Heidi Shipley, neither of whom has shown much allegiance to the traditionalism of the Netts-Landon years. The council Tuesday morning voted 4-1, with Netts in dissent, to open the panel’s twice-a-month workshops to public participation, at least at the end of those meetings, and with no restrictions on what members of the public may speak of. The original proposal the administration submitted had limited participation to items on each workshop’s agenda, but with a caveat from Landon himself.
“I do think you have to be very careful about, when someone gets up to speak, you say you can’t speak about that because it’s not on the agenda,” Landon cautioned, “so I think you need to have a little bit of discussion as to how you could limit that conversation.”
“I don’t see the need to limit what they speak of,” Nobile said. “We don’t usually have 40 minutes of people speaking, so I don’t really think that we’re going to save anything by not letting them speak, whatever they want to say. And that’s a good time, because that’s the time we’re here to have conversation.”
“We’ll be lenient,” Netts promised.
Workshops draw few members of the public, but they almost always include two individuals: Louis McCarthy and Jack Carrell, who also rarely fail to speak on numerous items at council meetings, whether they have a stake on those items or not. It was McCarthy, ironically, who spoke for more limits on the public’s freedom to speak.
“I think you need to stick to whatever is on the agenda, because other wise you get people in there, and it’s all right to come with their gripes right now, at the general business meeting,” McCarthy said. “But the workshop is to enhance your ability to figure out what’s good and what’s not good and everything, and if you have all kinds of tangents coming in here and coming in there, you’d be all over the map.” He added: “I would like the privilege of getting up and voicing my opinion whenever it’s necessary.”
Carrell suggested testing the idea for “two or three sessions” first.
It was immediately after the public participation segment this morning that Netts explained his opposition to the public participation proposal: “I’m going to oppose this because I don’t think it’s necessary,” he said. “I’d like to disabuse the public of the notion that somehow by not being able to speak at a council workshop, you are somehow restricted from sharing your opinions with council. Everyone of us has a website, every one of us has a telephone, every one of us has an address, and it is not uncommon, in fact Mr. Nobile speaks to this a number of items, of being approached by citizens individually, collectively, outside of city council workshops, to share their opinions and their thoughts. We all have that opportunity. Everybody from the public has that opportunity.”
Netts was neglecting to mention a key difference between a member of the public addressing council members individually (in person or by email) as opposed to addressing them collectively: individually and outside of meetings, council members may not engage each other either to figure out what their colleagues think about the issue, or to see how they have reacted to one opinion or another from the public. They’re barred from doing so by the state’s sunshine law. But they can do that in an open meeting, where public input then becomes more than a static missive and can, on occasion–as it has at county commission workshops, for example–change the dynamic of the panel’s discussion and influence the outcome of policy. That has happened most notably when Alan Peterson, the former city council member and county commissioner, has made proposals during budget season workshops at the county, influencing commissioners’ subsequent discussions with each other.
Netts, however, knew the battle lost.
“If however this motion passes,” the mayor continued, “I’m going to suggest that it be done with open comments, because let me tell you, from someone who has chaired these meetings the last nine years, it is sometimes difficult intellectually and sometimes difficult emotionally to say: No, you have to stop talking, you’re not on an agenda item. So if you’re going to allow this, then let’s allow it. I agree Steve, it’s probably not going to overly burden us, because as long as I am chairing these meetings I’ll continue to limit it to three minutes, which is quite common in Florida legislatures.”
McGuire had made the motion to approve the proposal with Nobile seconding (a rare pairing). McGuire had originally accepted the proposal as submitted by the city administration. Council member Jason DeLorenzo suggested broadening the allowance in line with Netts’s reluctant approach (minus the reluctance). McGuire had no issue to “open it up to God and everybody.”
“If we try this and it just isn’t productive, we can stop, or we can modify it,” McGuire said.