With consent agenda, governments can spend a lot of money with little talk

The parking lot at Mangrove Bay Golf Course in St. Petersburg.

AARON SHAROCKMAN | Times

The parking lot at Mangrove Bay Golf Course in St. Petersburg.

For seven minutes, the Clearwater City Council dissected the ins and outs of local Little League registration rules.

Then it dispatched a $5.9 million spending program — in 12 seconds.

The juxtaposition, which played out during a meeting earlier this year, is surprisingly routine among Tampa Bay's bigger governments, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis.

In one meeting this January, the area's seven largest local governments collectively spent $33.6 million without a word of debate or explanation.

St. Petersburg alone spent $14-million on more than a dozen projects without discussing where one penny was heading.

And in Tampa, City Council member John Dingfelder described Tampa's approval process as "sliding though" projects before the group approved $2.2 million in new purchases.

The reason? A little understood, often ignored parliamentary device called the consent agenda, which combines batches of government business into one item for officials to approve with a single vote.

The consent agenda "is really a place to bury sins," said Hillsborough County community activist Kelly Cornelius. "Sometimes you figure out what's happening. Sometimes, by the time you figure it out, it's too late."

Officials admit the approval process, which was originally created for Congress in 1909, is not perfect. But they also argue that meetings would become unwieldy if everything was thoroughly discussed.

Elected leaders are often briefed on consent agenda items beforehand, they say, or at least presented a written explanation detailing the cost. They also can remove any matter from the consent agenda for more discussion.

When it comes to matters of money, however, they seldom do.

Not always routine

Item 16 was a last-minute addition to St. Petersburg's consent agenda, tucked between approval of the City Council minutes and a resolution restating a street-paving policy.

It wouldn't mean much to read it:

16. Approval of the following action items related to a State economic development project:

(a) Approving the implementation of a new economic development program, the Job Creation Incentive Program ("JCIP") ...

(b) Approving the specific incentive package ...

(c) Approving the required City participation for the State's Qualified Target Industry Tax Credit Program.

The innocuous item, people would later learn, was a $12.7 million tax incentive package to persuade a tech firm called Jabil Circuit to stay in St. Petersburg.

But on that Thursday last June, it was just another line item. The tax package was approved unanimously.

City Council members admitted after news of the deal surfaced that they didn't even know what company they were giving the tax breaks to. They were briefed individually before the meeting about a tax package referred to only as "Project Extreme."

Mayor Rick Baker, who ultimately is responsible for crafting the council agenda, insists the city wasn't hiding the deal.

How did it wind up on the consent agenda in the first place?

"It has to be pretty agreeable before it ever stays there," said Nancy Sylvester, a parliamentarian who has written two books on meeting procedures. "You have to have everybody there saying this is something we don't need to discuss anymore before it stays on the consent agenda."

In the Jabil case, all eight St. Petersburg City Council members agreed with awarding the tax breaks. That their constituents may disagree is irrelevant, Sylvester said. There might be political ramifications for their vote, Sylvester said, but process-wise, there was nothing wrong with what they did.

City Council members did alter their rules — amid public outcry — to prevent any future tax deal from passing without discussion.

"If the problem is people have traditionally paid attention to the regular agenda and not the consent agenda," said Sylvester, "the shame is on the people who are assuming, because it's on the consent agenda, it's something they should agree with."

Spending 'stunning'

The use and detail provided about the consent agenda varies greatly among local governments.

Some consent agenda items were unclear. While the city of St. Petersburg received a bid for a street paving contract for $2.83 million, the council awarded the company a contract for $3.73 million. The $900,000 difference was never explained.

And many times governments never completely addressed a simple question: What's this costing taxpayers?

In Pinellas County, the consent agenda does not list the cost associated with each item. The dollar figures were available only in supplement materials, which aren't as accessible to the public.

St. Petersburg approved more consent agenda spending in January than Tampa, Pinellas and Hillsborough governments combined. But it's possible that the expenses are not emblematic of a larger trend. St. Petersburg's expenditures included yearly premiums for vision and dental insurance, along with several large public works projects that carry one-time expenses.

Still, St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse called it "stunning" that several million dollars worth of contracts were passed without discussion.

"When you get on the inside, part of the goal is to move things through," said Nurse, a neighborhood activist appointed to the City Council in April 2008. "There is a tendency to forget that there is a value to educate the public in what you're doing."

Nurse tells of watching a recent Pinellas County commission meeting on television. "I had no idea what they were doing," he said. "It became about how fast they could get things done."

Speech, actions differ

The process can trip up even devoted government watchdogs.

Cornelius, the Hillsborough community activist, believed county officials when they said in December that they hadn't spent money on a road widening project Cornelius opposed.

Except that they had — two months earlier.

Item A-55 on a September County Commission meeting agenda allocated $975,000 to purchase property along the route, Lithia Pinecrest Road.

The property, according to a county report, was needed for approved intersection improvements and stormwater drainage.

But it also was necessary, the report says, for "the future expansion of Lithia Pinecrest." The item sailed through because no one noticed it in time, Cornelius included.

Vivian Bacca, another Hillsborough watchdog, offers another example of what she considers consent agenda abuse.

Hillsborough often lists items that include the phrase "no budget impact," Bacca said.

That doesn't mean no cost, Bacca said. It just means the cost already has been budgeted.

"For the average person, you would have a terrible time trying to figure out what the heck is going on," Bacca said.

Rose Ferlita, a county commissioner and former member of Tampa City Council, understands why Bacca and Cornelius are worried.

"It happens so fast in some cases, I can see how the general public feels it is skirting around the issue without interacting with the public," Ferlita said. "It concerns me."

Prospects for change

Out of 73 spending items listed on the consent agendas of Tampa Bay's seven largest governments in January, just three were removed for discussion:

Land purchases in Pasco County and Tampa, and a $50,000 housing grant program in Hillsborough County.

Pinellas County Commissioner Neil Brickfield said the lack of discussion isn't typical of county meetings.

As a citizen, "I have been on the short end where there have been items I would have liked to have commented on that I couldn't," Brickfield said. "But at the county, these things are being fully discussed, which is good."

In Hernando County, officials have taken consent agenda spending to a different extreme.

The county stopped spending money on its consent agenda last summer, amid concerns the size of the contracts were growing as public scrutiny shrank.

"There was a perception all this money was being spent wildly," said former Hernando County Commissioner Chris Kingsley, who helped initiate the change. "We wanted to be transparent in what we were doing."

Instead of being approved in a single vote, each spending item now gets a brief presentation. The change adds 15 minutes to the meeting, Kingsley said.

It also has elicited more discussion and debate among commissioners, said Hernando County purchasing director Jim Gantt.

"With discussion items, you always get more questions," said Gantt, who has been working for Hernando County for 16 years.

Other local officials are wary to employ rigid spending rules like Hernando, saying larger governments could be consumed by the minutia of routine government matters. They also seem reluctant to let citizens remove items from the consent agenda like the city of Clearwater allows, even though citizens rarely do.

Ferlita, the Hillsborough County commissioner, suggested a compromise: Spending items over a predetermined amount warrant discussion.

"Consent agendas are fine to move meetings along," she said. "But something needs to be done to keep things from getting out of control."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

Spending millions without a speech

Seven of Tampa Bay's largest governments spent $33.6 million during one January meeting via a commonly used government tool called the consent agenda. Here's a look at some of that spending. (The eighth government the Times surveyed, Hernando County, outlawed spending on its consent agenda in 2008.)

St. Petersburg

$14.2-million (Jan. 8)

Grand Canal Boulevard NE Bridge
replacement: $1.61-million

• Walter Fuller Overlook structure: $124,887

• City port structural rehab-Phase 2: $546,020

• Grand Central District streets project: $774,010

Pinellas County

$4.6-million (Jan. 6)

• Vehicle replacement: $3.28-million

• South Cross Bayou Wastewater Treatment Facility upgrades: $775,680

Tampa

$2.3-million (Jan. 8)

• Dewatered sludge hauling and disposal: $500,000

• Grounds maintenance contract: $717,420

Clearwater

$5.9-million (Jan. 15)

• Installation of gas mains and service lines: $831,780

• Computer software licenses: $348,000

• Disposal of solid waste: $560,000

Largo

$1.4-million (Jan. 6)

• 15 mobile computers and 15 digital cameras: $183,569

Hillsborough County

$3.3-million (Jan. 7)

• Ready-mix concrete: $316,180

• Wrecker services: $702,800

Pasco County

$1.9-million (Jan. 6)

• Right turn lane addition: $133,334

• Submersible mixers: $190,176

Sifting through the jargon Understanding the consent agenda

The issue: St. Petersburg street paving contract.

What the agenda says: "Awarding a contract to Overstreet Paving, Inc. in the amount of $3,730,000.00 for Citywide Street Milling and Resurfacing FY2009 and Resurfacing Mangrove Bay Golf Course Parking Lot."

What it means: Each year, the city awards a street paving contract to maintain and upgrade the city's road system. The amount in the agenda item, $3.73-million, already was approved as part of this year's budget request.

What's behind the agenda item: The city received six bids to perform the work. The winning low bid, from Overstreet Paving of Spring Hill, was for $2.8-million to complete the work.

What the paperwork doesn't address

• Why is the city awarding a contract for $3.73-million if a company said it would do the work for $2.8-million?

• Why is the Mangrove Bay Golf Course parking lot singled out, but no other project is?

City engineering director Thomas B. Gibson and city internal services administrator Michael J. Connors explained the abnormalities in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times.

On the price difference: Connors said the city agreed to pay for additional paving projects up to the amount they originally budgeted for 2009. Put another way, the city will get more roads paved in 2009 than they had originally anticipated because the bid from Overstreet Paving came in 24 percent lower than expected.

On Mangrove Bay: Mangrove Bay is specifically mentioned, Gibson said, because it operates as an independent city business. While the rest of the paving money is coming from Penny for Pinellas funds, the work at Mangrove Bay will be paid for out of golf course revenues. Gibson provided the Times with a list of 295 road projects scheduled for paving in 2009. He said council members saw the list before they approved the expenditure Jan. 8, but the list was not part of the official council agenda packet.

With consent agenda, governments can spend a lot of money with little talk 02/28/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 2, 2009 11:25am]

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