DADE CITY — To some, it might seem to be no more than administrative trivia not worth a fight. But a recent vote to split one city job into two positions has Dade City leaders debating weightier issues such as openness in government.
"We don't want to be perceived as sneaky or sly," said Commissioner Scott Black, who expressed concern over a formal vote to split the duties of City Clerk Jim Class into two jobs, with Class remaining as finance director. What worried Black is that the vote was taken during a workshop rather than a regular meeting, a move he says could be illegal, at worst, or unethical, at best.
In the wake of the controversial vote, Black this week proposed a new rule for the way elected officials operate — no more voting on official city business unless the action is on the regular meeting agenda or deemed an emergency item.
He calls it a matter of transparency. When votes are proposed at the end of meetings during commissioner items — a time traditionally used for reporting on events or meetings attended — or during workshop gatherings, Black suggested such actions could be viewed by the public as underhanded.
Black moved last week to have City Attorney Karla Owens draft an amendment to the city code for the commission to vote on next month. Commissioner Bill Dennis seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.
The issue — splitting the clerk's job — first surfaced at the commission's Oct. 8 meeting, when Commissioner Jimmy Shive moved at the end of the meeting to separate the finance director/city clerk position into separate jobs, a suggestion the group discussed during summer budget workshops. Shive said he believes his plan will improve customer service and give Class, who has held the combined position for more than 20 years, a more balanced work load. Commissioner Eunice Penix seconded the motion, noting that other cities have separate clerk and finance director positions. But Black objected, saying there were details to work out — how to pay for the second position and job descriptions for both, for instance — before a vote should be taken. Commissioners agreed to have a workshop on the matter.
At the Oct. 21 workshop, Shive again moved to split the position after a lengthy discussion. It passed 3-2, with Black and Dennis voting no. Both men subsequently questioned the legality of the vote, which Owens defended at the commission's regular meeting the next night. Owens said the vote was legal because it did not involve an ordinance or resolution.
It turns out Owens is right, according to a legal expert on the Florida Sunshine Law.
"It's a very strong custom that boards not take votes in workshops, but there's no legal prohibition against that," said Jon Kaney, an Ormond Beach attorney and general counsel for the Florida First Amendment Foundation. "If a workshop is lawfully noticed in an open door public facility, they can do anything they could do in a regular meeting."
Kaney said ordinances require advertisements and public hearings so they typically are voted on during formal meetings. When it comes to other matters, however, boards typically honor that tradition.
"It's an isolated kind of thing," he said of workshop votes. "Most boards don't allow it. But it's folklore, not law."
While that might be the case, Kaney said, it's probably not wise.
"The possibility of catching somebody off guard exists," he said. "The custom is so entrenched that members of the public are justified in thinking that's the rule of the game."
Black's proposal to confine votes to meetings drew pushback from Shive, who called it "sour grapes."
"This topic has been discussed off and on for several years," Shive said. "If we didn't do anything illegal, why do we need to change it?"
Shive noted the commission agreed on a site plan proposal at last week's workshop on the new City Hall. Black countered that the group came to a consensus, but did not take an official vote and that the issue would resurface again on a regular meeting agenda. Dennis said he did not know if the commission took an illegal vote or not, but suggested the public might voice its opinion in the next election.
Dade City resident Penny Morrill, who recently retired as director of the Sunrise of Pasco domestic violence shelter, voiced her opinion at the close of the meeting.
"It may be legal, but it was not ethical," she said. "This does not bode well for democracy."
Commissioners also discussed job descriptions and contracts for the two positions, as well as a new organizational chart that outlines the hierarchy in City Hall. Commissioners last month discussed promoting current assistant city clerk Joanna Akers to city clerk, with a $2,800 pay raise, but Akers said she wants to discuss details — like a job description — before accepting. Class, who will not see a deduction in his salary as a result of the split, also said he wants the commission to agree on a job description before he signs a contract.
City Manager Billy Poe described the effort to fill the two positions as a two-step process: first, agree and vote on job descriptions, then negotiate and vote on contracts with Class and Akers.
The job descriptions also caused dissent in last week's meeting, with Shive and Mayor Camille Hernandez proposing the finance director also serve as a backup to the city clerk when necessary. Owens told commissioners they need to have an assistant city clerk who is legally authorized to sign documents in case the city clerk is unavailable.
Dennis and Black balked at having Class serve as an assistant clerk, even if only in rare cases.
"We're not really separating the positions if we're asking the finance director to be the back-up clerk," Dennis said.
Class agreed, pointing out that the job description needs to be written with an eye to the future, when he is not around. The likelihood of finding a qualified finance director who will agree to also serve as an assistant city clerk is nil, he said.
Hernandez and Shive said they do not see a problem with having Class helping out with clerk duties when needed, seeing as how his work load is being cut in half while his salary stays the same. Owens said another option is to deputize another employee as the assistant city clerk. Hernandez also suggested that if Class does not agree to a job description that includes being a backup clerk, the commission may have to advertise the job for a new hire.