ST. PETERSBURG — In response to an outcry among neighborhood leaders about a growing lack of transparency in how the city conducts its affairs, council member Karl Nurse wants to change how meetings are held.
He sent an e-mail to colleagues this week asking that they consider televising all meetings, or stop holding workshops apart from the regular Thursday council meeting.
The City Council increasingly has been using workshops to discuss major items such as digital billboards, the street solicitation ban, red light cameras and the budget. The format doesn't allow for public input.
By the time these topics are voted on during the council's regular meetings, which residents typically attend to add their thoughts and listen to how the council makes a decision, members have already discussed the issues at length and generally know how each will vote.
"While the goal is to dig deeper, earlier, into more complex issues, the impression is that council is attempting to handle these issues with less public notice," Nurse wrote in his e-mail Monday.
The flashpoint on workshops for many residents came nearly two weeks ago, when the City Council halted its regular Thursday meeting in the second floor chambers.
The reason? They had a budget workshop scheduled in a smaller room on the first floor.
So they walked downstairs with Mayor Bill Foster, leaving a meeting that had been televised, to discuss weighty budget matters like whether to close pools and eliminate 11 firefighter positions, in a room where the cameras weren't turned on.
"What was that all about?" said Council member Herb Polson. "I don't know how that decision was made."
Polson said he supports televising all workshops. Right now, three committee workshops — Public Service and Infrastructure, Budget Finance and Taxation, and Housing Services — are televised, and that's only after Nurse's prodding last year. Other workshops, such as the June 3 meeting, and other committees, such as the "Committee of the Whole," are held outside the scope of cameras.
For Council chair Leslie Curran, the main problem with committees is that too many council members are showing up.
"They've turned into full council meetings," Curran said. "The original idea was to have two or three attend, discuss it, and then bring it up at the regular meeting. Then, if we discuss it at council, it's all on TV.
"But why have a subcommittee when you have eight members (the entire council) attending?" Curran said. "It's redundant. By the time the public watches the full City Council, it looks like we're rubber stamping it because we've already discussed it."
The street solicitation ban, in particular, was heavily vetted by the City Council in numerous meetings before it was discussed at the June 3 public hearing.
"That's the value of these meetings," Polson said after a May 27 workshop. "I know what my colleagues are thinking. I can pretty much tell you what's going to happen next Thursday (at the public hearing)."
Curran supports scrapping the committee process altogether, an idea Polson also supports, or working with City Attorney John Wolfe to discuss ways to have the meetings follow a more strict set of rules. Council member Bill Dudley said he thinks workshops make the regular meetings more manageable.
"I worry that the meetings would become astronomically long," Dudley said.
But Curran said the council is already spending too much time in meetings.
"It takes a lot of time when you have a committee of eight instead of three or four," she said. "I'm not sure we're saving any time doing what we're doing now."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.