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Nip controversy with council charter refresher

January 23, 2010
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

One of Cape Coral City Council's new members has fallen into a rhubarb of sorts.

With the idea of saving money and jobs, Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz popped out an e-mail inviting city staff to submit money-saving ideas and then, at the request of a staffer, met with a handful of city employees out at the municipal golf course.

The hub-bub surrounding the actions is two-fold.

One, the city charter prohibits "interference with the administration," stating "Except for the purpose of inquiries and investigations, the Council or its members shall deal with City officers and employees who are subject to the direction and supervision of the city manager solely through the city manager, and neither the Council nor its members shall give orders to any such officer or employee, either publicly or privately."

Two, the Florida Public Employees Relations Commission and federal labor law dictates how governments and their representatives can interact with employees represented by unions which have negotiated contracts.

These are serious constraints upon public officials and they are there to protect taxpayers and public employees alike and absolutely should be taken in that context.

But cries for council investigations, Mr. Chulakes-Leetz' removal, and unfair labor practices claims seem a bit extreme.

Given the council member's outspoken position on garnering input from the public, and taken in the context of his near simultaneous scheduling of a "Citizen Input Conference" today at the Cape Coral Library, his actions can be classified, at worse, as good intentions gone awry.

Mr. Chulakes-Leetz himself says he did nothing wrong. The charter, he said Friday, allows inquiries and what's more, the interim city manager, Carl Schwing, previously told him it's OK to talk to staff as long as he does not provide direction, the allegation at the center of both controversies. Mr. Chulakes-Leetz emphatically says he has not crossed that line.

Perceptions are difficult to debunk, and newly elected officials frequently struggle with constraints they never envisioned while running for office. Sunshine laws? You mean we can't just get together and talk about things for the good of the city? Charter regulations? You mean we can't just put up the new finance director - or approach the people who do the work and get direct input?

It's tough, and we mean that sincerely.

But council needs to become informed and get the rules, regulations and yes, laws, that govern how they conduct business down pat. While some may consider these things cumbersome, the various restrictions on the actions of government officials are intended to prevent abuse and protect the taxpaying public.

With that in mind, we're sure we're all on the same page here - "new" council, "old" council, staff and the city's various vocal factions.

We suggest another session conducted by the city's legal staff for all elected officials. Clarify the legal aspects of the charter with a concentration on the provisions having to do with the performance of duties and the restrictions related to said performance.

A refresher on the Sunshine laws is always appropriate.

Meanwhile, the public can and should remain vigilant, calling attention to concerns as they arise. That is a proper role for us all to take, regardless of who is in office and whether they fall into our "camp" or not.

But let's put the pitchforks and tar and feathers away for now, and let's keep the labor complaint forms and stamps in our pockets.

There's time enough for enforcement if education fails to meet its mark.

- Breeze editorial



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