Orlando Sentinel by Jeff Weiner
November 30, 2017
Recent one-on-one meetings between members of the Winter Park City Commission have drawn the ire of an open-government watchdog group, which called the discussions an example of “bad public policy.”
In a letter sent Thursday, Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, wrote that such meetings violate “the spirit and intent” of the state’s Sunshine Law, even though they appeared to comply with its written requirements.
“The practice of holding one-on-one meetings, particularly during the workday, creates an unnecessary and unwarranted barrier to the public’s ability to attend such meetings,” she wrote.
Mayor Steve Leary, who met with Commissioner Gregory Seidel the day before Petersen’s letter, said he rejected the group’s criticism, noting the city advertises one-on-one meetings just as it does other meetings. “The public is invited,” he said.
Besides his meeting with Leary, records show Seidel also met Nov. 14 with Commissioner Pete Weldon. Seidel called one-on-one meetings an “efficient” way to “understand where my counterpart is coming from.”
Agendas for both meetings labeled them “informal” discussions and listed “Current City issues” as the topic. One was held at 8:30 a.m. on a Thursday, the other at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday.
“We schedule these things when they’re convenient for us, and this is when this one was convenient for us,” Seidel said of his meeting with Leary. They discussed topics Seidel had raised at the commission’s last full meeting, both men said, such as burying utility lines.
In an emailed response to Petersen, Weldon said such meetings “are perfectly legal and in no way impair our constituents’ opportunity to know what we are thinking and discussing.”
The practice is not unique to Winter Park. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, for example, periodically holds meetings with individual commissioners outside of the full City Council setting.
Winter Park previously faced scrutiny over one-on-one meetings in 2015, including one in which Leary and Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel questioned whether members of city boards should have free reign to speak to the news media without first seeking guidance from the city.
“The city not only abides by the Sunshine Law and all of its requirements, it goes above and beyond what the law requires by making the audio of the meeting available online … allowing the public to access the information at their convenience,” City Manager Randy Knight said.
In her letter, Petersen urged the city to “desist in this questionable practice.”
“Citizens should be encouraged to participate in their government, and these one-on-one meetings act as a disincentive and deterrent to civic engagement,” she said. [READ MORE]