Tallahassee city commissioners on Wednesday unanimously agreed to get rid of an audio microphone kill switch to silence public speakers.
Commissioner Nancy Miller raised the issue and said the kill switch gives the impression commissioners are trying to stifle public comment. Instead, Miller said, the commission has gone out of its way to encourage public input.
“This is the people’s building, and this is the people’s government, and it’s important to me that people do come and participate. I feel we’ve done a great deal,” she said. “This one action of putting this kill switch in has negated all of that.”
Two dime-sized audio buttons labeled “switch” were installed at the commission dais that connects to microphones used by public speakers. City Treasurer-Clerk Jim Cooke controlled one and the other one was controlled by Mayor John Marks, who left before Wednesday’s vote on the kill switch.
The controversial switch has been used only once during a March meeting when Cooke silenced City Hall critic Erwin Jackson for making what Cooke considered to be personal attacks. The action triggered a wave of community outrage and cries from free speech advocates who said the policy crossed the line.
Commissioner Scott Maddox said unruly speakers can be handled by the mayor’s gavel, but said what really needs to happen is for public speakers to follow the rules.
“When someone doesn’t follow the rules of the quorum in a public meeting, they should be removed by the Tallahassee Police Department and be asked to leave,” he said.
“I think it is a totally complete distraction,” Commissioner Andrew Gillum said. “I think it has not in any way been effective toward the end that we would like to achieve.”
In other business, commissioners unanimously approved a $100,000 settlement with Gail Stansberry-Ziffer, the wife of City Commissioner Gil Ziffer, for a trip-and-fall on a city sidewalk that left her seriously injured.
Ziffer excused himself from the vote.
Stansberry-Ziffer filed a pre-suit claim with the city after her fall June 11, 2010, on a sidewalk on Four Oaks Boulevard in SouthWood, where the Ziffers used to reside. City officials determined the cause of the fall was tree-root growth that created trip hazards throughout the neighborhood.
City Attorney Lew Shelley said she fractured her right hip in two places, resulting in a permanent rod having to be placed in her leg. City documents also say she was hospitalized for more than three weeks and had to take part in physical therapy for several months. She continues to experience pain in her right hip and has restricted motion, and her doctors have recommended further surgery, which would require more physical therapy.
Her medical bills so far have totaled about $130,000, and future bills have been estimated at more than $50,000, according to city records.
The decision, Marks said, was taken up so publicly as a way to show citizens Stansberry-Ziffer wasn’t being treated differently than anyone else.
“We want to make sure that our citizens understand that in reality Ms. Ziffer is not being treated any differently than any other claimant.”
Commissioner Miller said the city instead displayed extra due diligence in the case.
“I think we were treating her much more rigorously than we would have been treating anyone else,” she said.
Since 2001, the city has dealt with 111 claims on physical defects in sidewalks since 2001 and paid on 30 of them at a cost of $271,000, not including Stansberry-Ziffer’s, Shelley said. One of those cases occurred months before on a problematic sidewalk in the same general area where Stansberry-Ziffer fell. The city settled for $35,000 in that case.
In the same time period, excluding vehicle claims, which Shelley said is the largest source of claims, the city’s risk management office has dealt with 336 claims and paid on 64 with a total cost of about $567,000.
“This is probably the most severe slip-and-fall injury that the city of Tallahassee has experienced in that period of time,” Shelly said. “It is unusual that a fall like this caused the damage that it did.”
Commissioner Gillum asked Shelly to provide the commission with help moving forward in dealing with how the city’s property may cost them.
“I am concerned about our future liability on the city’s infrastructure. We could have increased incidents. We could have fraudulent incidents, you could have any range of things that could come forward,” he said. “We got to get our hands around this more broadly.”