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Transparency, controversy - and a welcome ray of light

May 17, 2019
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Cape Coral City Council approved its taxpayer-funded trip-to-China excursion on Monday after some impassioned pleas from a number of supporters who stepped to the podium during public comment to tout the benefits of the venture.

You didn't know the matter, tabled from last week and not rescheduled for consideration, was coming to a vote?

You're not alone.

It was an invitation-only show.

And what a show it was.

With prepared statements and note pads in hand, a contingent of Cape business leaders provided a litany of reasons the city should send its announced delegation - and then some-to Baise with an add-on stop-over in Chengdu.

The reciprocal visit to sister-city Baise had previous Council approval.

The addition of Chengdu, where the city's new economic development director has existing contacts, is intended to add bang to the public buck, $17,000 for airfare and other travel-related expenses for a contingent of five. Going are Mayor Joe Coviello; Community Development Director Vince Cautero; the city's new Economic Development Manager, Ricardo Noguera; JoAnne Killion, who was instrumental in bringing the proposal for the sister city exchange forward; and the mayor's administrative assistant, Pearl Taylor, who Council twice said should not go at taxpayer expense.

We thank the members of the public who spoke. While we do not agree with all of the arguments proffered, we respect the process and their input.

We also think the addition of a supportive council member from the city of Sanibel was a nice touch. Overplayed, perhaps, given that the trip was neither placed on the published Council agenda nor added at the beginning of Monday's session so others might provide input, but a nice touch if one is looking to stage manage a controversial issue without regard to Council's own rule book.

We would call Mayor Coviello to task here for the scripted performance, but three members of Council - John Gunter, Jessica Cosden and Jennifer Nelson - did that better than we could, citing both the blatant lack of transparency and the abrogation of rules that could have easily been met by simply placing the matter on the next meeting agenda for proper consideration.

That would have been this Monday had a Council majority agreed to set a special meeting to coincide with its already scheduled workshop. The trip itself, set for May 31 to June 7, still likely would have passed, although maybe not exactly as altered. Dissenting Council members said they were not opposed to a reciprocal visit - they had issues with the process, which led first to additional costs and then ended with Monday's unscheduled vote.

We thank Councilmembers John Gunter, Jessica Cosden and Jennifer Nelson - profusely thank Councilmembers Gunter, Cosden and Nelson - for their efforts and their outrage.

It is a most welcome ray of Sunshine on conducting public business that too often has been conducted in the shadows.

Monday's meeting and this voting issue is a prime example of that lack of transparency.

Not only did Council bypass its own agenda rules, shutting out the public, but Council's own office continues to do the public records tap dance regarding related documents, again leaving the public in the dark.

A couple of things.

As the scant records received reveal, and as Council knows full well, this trip to China has been perking for months, with a March 15 invitation letter in hand from Zhou Yijue, mayor of the People's Government of Baise Municipality Guangi.

It, in fact, has been talked about for years, as the sister city proposal began with former mayor Marni Sawicki four years ago when financing incentives for development endeavors were abundant.

The travel process, which includes applying for visas, has progressed with four of those visas, for the mayor and city staffers, issued on Friday, May 3, at an expedited cost of $1,440. Note that they were issued before the trip was brought back to Council for its consideration last Monday with changes to the itinerary and the list of those going at city expense.

Council - and the public - should have been pulled back into the loop much earlier.

It would have precluded Monday's crisis vote.

It would have mitigated much of the controversy.

And it would have been courteous to those members of the blindsided public and Council alike.

Which brings us to a second, related issue.

Public notice matters

While Council voted to approve the not-on-the agenda trip expenses last Monday, it postponed a vote to amend the City Council Rules of Procedure.

The resolution is back for discussion this Monday.

The change that has drawn attention would formally allow a Council member who "for good cause cannot appear in person at a meeting" to appear remotely by electronic means, providing there is a physical quorum on the dais.

Council has allowed this in the past and it is important now as one member of the board, Councilmember Cosden, who is pregnant, has a qualifying Family Medical Leave condition. The change assures the city is ADA compliant.

That's a no-brainer as is a provision that would require that the subject matter for special meetings be clearly defined and that the agenda be limited to only the subject matter for which the special meeting has been called.

Also to the good is a provision that would, if not prohibit, at least mitigate no-notice add-ons like the one seen Monday.

Items placed on the agenda after the deadlines would require 1) a clear necessity for the item to be heard by Council at that meeting; 2) City Council would be notified by the Clerk at the time the add-on request is made that the item will be forthcoming and 3) "Except in extraordinary circumstances," any item that City Council was not been notified of as of noon on Friday could be subject to a Council vote to remove that item from the agenda.

Another thank you to Councilmember Cosden, who is bringing the resolution forward.

But tucked in the 13-page proposal is the formalization of a process that has fostered that shadow government climate at city hall.

Current rules require that, for Regular meetings, all reports, communications, contract documents or other matters, including position approvals, discussion items, and consent agenda items be submitted:

- Monday, 3 p.m. (two weeks prior to regular meeting- submitted to City Manager

- Tuesday, 3 p.m. (prior to regular meeting) - all packet materials submitted to City Clerk

- Tuesday, 4 p.m. (prior to regular meeting) - agenda provided to Mayor for approval

- Wednesday, 3 p.m. (prior to regular meeting) - packets distributed to Council and published to web for the public

The amendment proposes to delete the Wednesday publication deadline and delay notice to the public by a full 25 hours by not posting those public record documents online until end-of-day Thursday at 4 p.m.

The city administration, by direction or intent, has long been bypassing the Wednesday publication deadline "so Council has time to consider the packet before being asked questions" and to "correct any problems such as missing documents."

Reward a failure to follow Council-mandated rules and delay public notice?

Formalize a broken process that flies in the face of Attorney General advisory opinions that preclude the implementation of mandatory delays in the release of records?

After Monday's cautionary tale?

We think not.

We urge Council to pull the publication change from the resolution and to hold those responsible accountable for any failure to meet the existing deadline.

As Councilmembers Gunter, Cosden and Nelson have so aptly pointed out, the issue is one of transparency.

And transparency ignored.

That was the heart of this week's brouhaha.

We venture a guess it will not escape public criticism at next week's Council meeting, either.

Let's not build a greater lack into the regular meeting process by giving the public less time to take part - and be a part- of city government here in Cape Coral.

- Breeze editorial



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