At Hometown! PAC’s Call to Candidates Monday evening, Jerry Wickey spoke to me about his new website myKeyWest.us (click on link to see it), where citizens and elected officials post and discuss issues which are important to them for discussion. There also are straw polls. I went there yesterday and participated in this discussion on the Sunshine Law, initiated by Jerry:
The Florida Sunshine laws were intended to keep government clean, but like all laws they also have unintended consequences.
What could possibly be wrong with Sunshine? Politicians colluding in back rooms, scheming against those who elected them??? Well, people who run for and obtain public office for a degree of self interest, but also because they feel an urgency to change things for the better and help people. Of course one person’s better is not always another’s.
The purpose of the Florida sunshine laws are to prevent politicians from making secret back room deals which are not in the better interest of the people they serve. But what happens when an honest politician has a good idea and wants to discuss it with a fellow politician. If he does so, he has broken the law. Kinda’ like requiring employees to submit all suggestions for improving production in writing instead of just telling their forman. While solves some problems it produces others. What good ideas never get investigated because its just too much trouble? What about an employee who has a great idea and explains it to his coworkers, but the employee withe the great idea gets fined because the idea got to management with out any written record?
Writing new laws in answer to every problem is a common government response. Don’t blame the individuals in government. They can’t do anything about it. Government is a machine and each elected and appointed official is merely a cog. Each does his or her job the best they can, but the result is still a product of all the cogs working together. The machine of centralized government has some drawbacks. Serious drawbacks. We all see them and have to work through the problems government intervention often causes every day.
Is it time to relax the sunshine laws? Don’t do away with any of the good, but replace it with some alternatives.
We need to answer three questions.
1) Can local government make any change to the application of the law here in our county?
2) If we can, is the issue more or as important as other issues?
3) If anyone could post in a common and public forum anything they heard about any political dealings and the politicians involved could respond in an equally convenient forum, would this provide greater protection and fewer drawbacks to getting people in trouble for taking about good ideas just because once in a while two people talking alone get into trouble?
The public forum would have to be accessible to anyone, allowing comments at any time for all to see and read without requiring people to assemble at a certain time on a certain date at a certain location for a public meeting.
If you agree voice your opinion and make this happen. If you disagree, pose a rational reason for your disagreement. If you disagree but fail to find any rational reason for your disagreement, you should keep your opinion to yourself.
Todd German, Chairman of Hometown! PAC replied:
While Florida has a great website regarding the Sunshine law I feel it is still very misunderstood. Seems like a local resource whether it be links to the appropriate state sites or a discussion forum where local attorneys might weigh in would be useful. I find that too often discussion regarding the Sunshine law start based on faulty information and go rapidly downhill from there.
I noticed in one of your emails a question asking if a local ordinance could be enactacted to relax the Sunshine laws. In my opinion the answer would be a resounding NO. Local governments can and often do make laws which are more restrictive than State statute but they have no ability to enact anything with fewer restrictions.
I agree with Todd German’s Sunshine Law comments and add, having now run three times for the county commission and three times for mayor of Key West (before 2011), my impression is there is deep-seated resistance in too many officials covered by the Sunshine Law to do what they can to avoid the appearance of violating it. For example, if two city commissoners have lunch at Pepe’s on Caroline Street to talk about poems they want to submit to the Robert Frost poetry contest, that is not a violation of the Sunshine Law, but it sure causes people who see them together to wonder if poetry is what they actually discussed, doesn’t it? What about county commissioners attending the annual dinner hosted by Ocean Reef Club Assocition (ORCA) for county commissioners, which is closed to the public? County Commissoner Kim Wigington delines to attend that lucheon because of the Sunshine Law. Perhaps the solution is not talk of, or actual changes to, the Sunshine Law. Perhaps the solution is putting people like Kim into positions covered by the Sunshine Law. For such people try to avoid the appearance of impropriety in other areas of ethical concern, as well – such as conflict of interest.
I emailed Jerry yesterday that I would submit a new issue, with comments, which ended up as follows:
If you really want better city government …
I have practiced law. I have run for mayor of Key West three times and for the county commission three times. I have followed and written about Key West and Keys politics since 2001. My impression is most elected officials identify with their office – it becomes part of their personality, their reason for being. It moves from being public service to something beyond that, which compromises the elected official.
I say there should only be one term – no incumbent can run for reelection. 2 years for city mayor should be increased to 4 years, same as city commissioners and county commissioners, and other local elected offices.
I say, when deciding who to vote for, look to a candidate’s vulnerability to family, social or financial pressure. Look to a candidate’s willingness to go it alone, be unpopular, if necessary. Look to a candidate’s ability and willingness to think outside the box.
I say, to have meaningful change in government, local, state or national, requires putting into office people who will not continue what already is being done, which isn’t working.
For example, nothing suggested so far for Truman Waterfront has worked out. That says, doesn’t it, that nothing suggested so far was what needed to happen there? Yet look at what is on the table out there. Will it benefit the city government, or will it just benefit various factions? If it doesn’t benefit the city government, then the city government should not go along with it, even if that means ignoring the referendums for the elder retirement facility and the extension of Bahama Village onto Truman Waterfront.
Those referendums gave approval but did not require the city government to go along. Legally, speaking, the city government is required to do nothing at Truman Waterfront. Legally, speaking, the city government can come up with something entirely different. For sure, the city government should not go along with anything that does not benefit the city government as much as it benefits supplicants/applicants. Truman Waterfront is the city’s land, the city should get something tangible back, if it is going to donate its land.
Consider this alternative.
Put the new city hall on part of Truman Waterfront. Provide plenty of parking nearby for employee and visitor parking, and for special events, such as the powerboat races. Let part of the acreage be a public park, which connects into Ft. Zachary Taylor State Park. Open the outer mole to Ft. Zach. Let locals and visitors again use the outer mole to swim, fish, picnic and watch sunsets.
The Walshes own nearby 5-star Westin Hotel next to Mallory Pier, and 5-star hotels up the America east coast. All successful. The Bernsteins own Wisteria Island and have partnered with the Walshes to develop it. The Washes’ title to Wisteria Island is up in the air, given recent revelations that the Department of the Navy claimed ownership and objected to sale of Wisteria and adjacent bay bottom by the State of Florida to the original private owner in the Bernstein chain of title. The Navy is not known to give its land to private citizens but has, from time to time, given its land to municipalities, including Key West.
The city gives Walsh/Bernstein a nominal 99-year lease on the Truman Waterfront marina and adjacent upland area, including the land currently set aside for the elder retirement facility. Walsh-Bernstein develop Truman Waterfront marina and upland in keeping with the Westin. Admiral’s Cut, which the Walshes own, is opened up. The city receives one percent of the Walsh/Bernstein gross revenues. Coming off the top, it will be easy for the city’s accountants to determine the city is getting what it is due.
The Bernsteins deed their interest, whatever it is, in Wisteria Island and their adjacent-owned bay bottom to the city, on condition the city turns Wisteria into a lovely green nature park for day visitors and overnight camping. The city asks the Navy to release any interest it has in the island to the city, for it to be made into a city nature park. Electricity is provided by solar panels. Water is provided by cistern. Electric compost toilets take care of human waste. A concession stand similar to the one at Ft. Zachary Taylor, except it is solar-powered, provides amenities. Fees are in line with what Bahia Honda State Park charges for day and overnight stays. A city ferry (barge) carries visitors and campers out there and back from Mallory Pier, charging $10 a head. Wisteria Nature Island T-shirts and other memorabilia are sold.
Consider, the city doesn’t need a new public swimming pool, which has been proposed for Truman Waterfront. The city has a beautiful seaside olympic pool at the Martin Luther King Center. Consider, the city doesn’t need a new soccer field, which has been proposed for Truman Waterfront. The city already has a nice grass soccer field on Truman Waterfront land next to Bahama Village.
Consider, Bahama Conch Community Land Trust had its opportunity to develop the Truman Waterfront acreage next to Bahama Village, and that didn’t work out. Consider, it doesn’t seem anyone else has/can come forward to carry that project on. Consider, it doesn’t look like there is any gain back for the city government in that project, in any event.
Consider, the proponents for the elder retirement community had their chance to get that built, and it didn’t work out. Not only that, elders from up the Keys and the mainland will have to buy shares/pay rent, for it to work economically, because there is not sufficient demand from in Key West. The city should not give its land to subsidize a development that is for people not living in Key West. The city should not give its land to a developer, who does not want to give the city a healthy slice of the action in return. That’s what the proponents of this facility have wanted the city to do.
Consider, Meisel-Spottswood have yet to nail down financing for their plan to develop and operate a mega-yacht facility in the Truman Waterfront marina and support facilities (club, spa, restaurant, swimming pool, shops) on a few adjacent upland acres. Consider, Meisel-Spottswood want the city to give them the land and the Marina, in exchange for a slice of the action on a deal that is anybody’s guess how it will turn out. Consider, the mega-yacht marina is financed and built, then it flops, like Beachside flopped at the top of Key West (a Spottswood development). Now, the city has a mega-yacht marina it doesn’t need, a bank trying to run it, the city getting nothing, its marina and adjacent upland tied up.
Consider, while 70 percent of the voters approved the city negotiating to buy Glynn Archer Elementary School from the School District for a new city hall, that referendum is not legally enforceable. Consider, no architect or contractor yet has personally guaranteed the cost of remaking Glynn Archer into a new city hall, and I will faint if an architect or contractor does personally guarantee the cost. Consider the city partnering for 50 years with a seriously dysfunctional School District at Glynn Archer. Consider, building height variances will be required to rebuild city hall at the Angela Street location. The city is going to grant itself a height variance after raising hell about the height of new Horace O’Bryant K-8 School?
If you really want something different, elect people who go about things differently, people who are not trying to win popularity contests, people who think outside the box, people who cannot be swayed by family, social, political or financial pressure. People who, when applicants and supplicants come calling, say, “We see what’s in it for you. What’s in it for the city government and the taxpayers?”