Sarasota County Commission chooses intimidation, not collaboration
Originally published September 29, 2012 in SRQ Daily
It’s not easy to embrace criticism, but its essential to creating good government. Engaging in dismissive or retaliatory rhetoric towards citizens who bring problems forward hinders productive community dialogue. One Sarasota County commissioner recently observed our former county administrator managed by fear. That’s true, but it’s also true of how some county leaders approach their relationships with citizens. Commissioners must set an example and be receptive to legitimate citizen concerns.
It is regrettable it took the recent mowing contract fiasco to validate ongoing community concern about county procurement. Storm Tech is the local vendor that uncovered Sarasota County’s improper handling of the mowing contract. Storm Tech enjoyed a productive and professional relationship with the county until they began to explore procurement problems with the mowing contract. When Storm Tech engaged in active county oversight, owners describe being “slandered, reported to various agencies, bullied and ignored “ because they dared to question how our government was functioning.” County staff was certainly out of line, but is staff getting the message from commissioners that it’s okay to dismiss or bully “complainers”?
When the county’s ethics and Compliance officer dismissed the procurement concerns of citizens at a March Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) meeting, he had the support of two commissioners. One characterized the legitimate criticism from citizens as “uncivil.”
This past week, one positive development in procurement was the county commission’s decision to repeal the $2,000 protest fee that they instituted in December 2010. Commissioners acknowledge the $2,000 protest fee was created because one individual was filing numerous protests to call attention to procurement problems. Shooting the messenger didn’t fix the problems; it allowed them to continue. The punitive $2,000 protest fee was recommended by staff, but it required commission approval to take effect.
Full public access to county commission e-mails has been requested by citizen leaders, but the commission refuses to provide full access. Commissioners have said they are concerned about abuse of the system by the public, access to obscene or inflammatory e-mails and citizens being overwhelmed by the volume of e-mails. The commission is choosing to limit public access to their e-mails in spite of the successful experiences of counties that provide full access and the negligible cost and impact on staff time. Could their vote of “no confidence” in constituents be any clearer?
One engaged citizen recently wrote to the commission and pointed out the county’s website creates the false impression that all e-mails are displayed. The citizen suggested the county be accurate and let the public know e-mail access is limited. One commissioner responded, suggesting the constituent’s message came across as “somewhat hostile.” Huh? The suggestion that a factual message is hostile distracts from the important issue: the commission’s obligation to communicate accurate information to the public on their website. Commissioners do not serve the public when they attempt to put citizens on the defensive instead of dealing with their concerns.
If county commissioners are serious about collaborating with constituents and conducting county business in a civil manner, then approving full public access to their e-mails would be a major step in the right direction. Demonstrating respect and regard for the public sends the right message to everyone, especially constituents.