Winter Park Mayor Steve Leary has launched a series of one-on-one meetings with individual City Commission members, in addition to the commission’s regularly scheduled meetings every second and fourth Monday of the month.
Leary is holding the separate sidebar meetings to discuss “general matters.” The meetings, which are advertised on the city’s website, have been taking place in a conference room at City Hall at 9 a.m. and, the city says, the public is invited.
The one-on-one discussions appear to adhere to Florida’s “Government in the Sunshine” laws because they’re advertised and because no formal action is being taken. But representatives from the state’s First Amendment Foundation frown on the practice, saying such meetings are uncommon and violate the spirit of the state’s open-meetings law.
Even though formal actions or votes are not taken at such meetings — or should not be — they can form the foundation for public-policy decisions later adopted at the larger, regularly scheduled meetings, said Jon Kaney, board member and general counsel for the foundation, based in Tallahassee.
At Leary’s third one-on-one meeting, he and City Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel complained that the city’s independent citizen panels — such as the Planning and Zoning Board — should not have free rein to discuss public matters with the media without first seeking guidance and direction from the city.
In a recording of the meeting, Leary is heard comparing the board members to employees of a private business who should seek direction from company higher-ups before talking to reporters.
After learning of Leary’s and Sprinkel’s concerns, Winter Park board members responded that they are appointees — not city employees — and should be able to talk freely about important public matters without first checking with the city whether it’s all right.
The First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee agreed with the board members, pointing out that there’s a thin line between a request and an order from a mayor or high-level administrator.
Leary and Sprinkel talked with Assistant City Manager Michelle Del Valle about ways that the city’s board members could be further trained in media relations. When contacted by the media, the first step for board members “should be contacting the city communications department,” Del Valle said at the meeting.
Sprinkel joked that her advice to board members in speaking to the media would be, “Just say no,” but later said her aim was to ensure such board members were fully informed before being quoted in the media.
Independent bodies such as the Planning and Zoning Board play important roles that include advising city officials and commissioners on issues such as historic preservation or transportation, or whether to approve or deny a major development that could impact thousands of residents.
It’s not uncommon for those boards — or individual board members — to disagree with the mayor or city commissioners.
The discussion over media relations stemmed from a June 22 Sentinel story in which Historic Preservation Board member Rebecca Talbert took a position about the board’s public role that was different from Leary’s, and a July 4 story in which bike/pedestrian committee member Jill Hamilton Buss challenged SunRail’s position that bike and pedestrian paths should not run alongside railroad tracks.
“As a City Commission, if we have a board [member] go out to the paper to state their case, why didn’t they come to us first?” Sprinkel asked during her one-on-one meeting with Leary. “Why didn’t we hear this first? We really need to get a handle on that.”
Leary added that board members talking to the media about ongoing situations “puts added pressure on the city.”
“Let me be clear, too,” Leary said, “we’re not trying to limit their First Amendment rights. But if you represent the city — it’s the same with a company.
“If somebody from my company goes and talks to the press, I’m going to say, ‘Guys, we’ve got to talk about that. This is about the company. It’s not about you.'”
Planning and Zoning Board Vice Chairman Peter Gottfried disagreed.
“I’m perfectly capable of speaking to you or anyone else without the city determining whether I can or not,” Gottfried said.
Though board members need to use discretion, “even Supreme Court guys and gals go out and talk to the press after rendering an opinion,” Gottfried said.
Planning and Zoning Board member Tom Sacha said he did not know the details of the discussion between Leary and Sprinkel, but in terms of the concept of talking to the city first, “I think it would be hard for it to go over well.”
“I’m a citizen of Winter Park, and it would be hard to keep [me] from saying something,” Sacha said. “But stranger things have happened.”
Winter Park city spokeswoman Clarissa Howard said when board members are first appointed, they are asked during orientation to work with communications staff when media interviews are requested “so they have the most updated information or if they need additional facts.”
Sprinkel told the Sentinel that she “would never tell people not to talk to the media. But I don’t want to open the paper and see [quotes] I knew nothing about. I just want to know about it ahead of time.”
Kaney, of the First Amendment Foundation, criticized her position.
“That muddies the facts a little bit, saying that ‘it was never our intention to restrict anyone,'” he said. “The fact is, it will restrict them. Otherwise, why are you saying that?
“You have the right to say what you want to whoever you want, as long as you’re not violating another law.”
Other cities, including Maitland and Orlando, do not have a policy asking board members to contact the city before speaking to the media, according to their spokespeople. Orlando city spokeswoman Cassandra Lafser said that “[we] advise them that when they do media interviews, they can only speak on behalf of themselves as an individual and not on behalf of the entire board or the city.”
The Sentinel had reached out to all Historic Preservation Board members in Winter Park for the draft ordinance story, but Talbert was the only one who responded. Talbert did not return calls asking for comment on this issue.
Original article here.