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Dunedin commissioners refute charges of closed-door discussions

DUNEDIN — Commissioner Julie Scales appeared to back down from new allegations that the city does too much business behind closed doors after her colleagues pointed out contradictions in statements she made this summer and last week.

During Thursday's City Commission meeting, Scales asked that the commission schedule a formal vote on whether to build a new government center, even though this summer the commission put money in the city budget to start on that project.

Scales wants the formal vote partly because she believes commissioners have spent too much time discussing the center in workshops.

"My concern is … this has really been going on three years now, and I think it's appropriate at some time to put it out there what we're doing," Scales said. "We're talking about spending $500,000."

However, she dropped that request after Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski and her other colleagues pointed out, among other things, that Scales' request conflicts with statements she made this summer that commissioners had tried to bury the government center item in the budget.

"Over the summer when we voted on this for the budget, one of the big discussion points on the municipal services building … is that all of this stuff was being done behind the scenes and out of the sunshine," Bujalski said.

"And now, at the last workshop and then today," she continued, "it's been said we've had multiple workshops discussing this to death, we finally need to vote it up or down. So I don't know which it is. Is it behind the scenes and out of the sunshine, or talked to death and it finally needs a vote?"

Thursday's discussion brings attention to commissioners' continued conflicts with Scales and harkens back to debate from earlier this year.

Scales said this summer that she cast the lone vote against the 2012 budget because several big-ticket items, including the $500,000 earmarked to begin exploring a new government center, were not discussed as individual agenda items during budget workshops. She later acknowledged that she herself did not ask for a discussion.

In an attempt to quash Scales' repeated accusations about violations of Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law, commissioners formally addressed her claims during a September commission meeting.

During that meeting, Scales, a former attorney for Pinellas County government, said she disagrees with a number of meeting preparation practices common among city commissions. Her main allegations:

• That one-on-one commission briefings with staff have led to backroom discussion, decision-making and votes on multimillion dollar projects and other issues that haven't been discussed publicly.

• That the Dunedin commission's policy of reaching informal consensus during workshops to give staff direction, rather than taking formal votes, has left staffers "essentially reading tea leaves as to what they think direction is."

At that September meeting, City Manager Rob DiSpirito used workshops minutes to prove that commissioners had publicly discussed items Scales accused them of not discussing publicly.

Additionally, city attorney Tom Trask said it's common and acceptable for local government elected officials to meet with staff or the city manager to educate themselves on agenda items before meetings. He backed up his conclusion with a 30-year-old Florida attorney general's opinion.

Fast-forward to Dec. 6, when commissioners held a televised public workshop on the proposal to replace Dunedin's aging Municipal Services Building and City Hall with a new government services annex.

At that meeting, Mayor Dave Eggers and Commissioners Bujalski, David Carson and Ron Barnette agreed that the staff should gather information about the city's current space needs and which type of professional might best help the city with plans for the government complex.

Scales, however, complained Thursday that she wanted the commission to now schedule a formal vote because the workshop ran over its allotted time and she had to leave before the commission gave staff that direction.

"We don't have to make a vote to tell them to go do a scope of services for money we've already approved in the budget," Bujalski said Thursday. "That scope of service would be the next step of us all discussing it again because if you don't approve the scope of service, you can't go out for" a bid.

Some commissioners weren't eager to do it all over again for Scales.

"I think we understand that there is a person on this commission that doesn't want this. That's been made very clear," Bujalski said. "Unfortunately, nobody's doing anything wrong with it. We're following the rules. And to continue this combativeness is really just unproductive."

Scales replied that she doesn't oppose a new government center, just has questions.

"I never said I was against it," Scales said. "I've always said we need to think outside the box. And I don't think we've worked hard enough at seeing what the most cost-effective solution is."

Mayor Dave Eggers and DiSpirito said staff was willing to rush the creation of the scope of services and schedule the item for a formal vote at an upcoming commission meeting. Scales said that wouldn't be necessary.

However, she did say that she still wants Trask to research the reason why commissioners don't vote during workshops.

Keyonna Summers can be reached at or (727) 445-4153.

Dunedin commissioners refute charges of closed-door discussions 12/20/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 20, 2011 7:58pm]
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