When the St. Petersburg City Council recently wanted to talk about controversial digital billboards, it moved from its large chambers to a smaller room with no TV cameras, invited billboard company officials to speak and made residents keep quiet.
When the council recently made decisions about proposed budget cuts, it did so off camera at a meeting not listed on the city's published meeting schedule and with no public input.
And when the council discussed the struggling Mahaffey Theater a few weeks ago, the public had little opportunity to watch because the meeting was held during the day and not videotaped.
Good luck to St. Petersburg residents who want to keep a close eye on the work of their elected City Council. They will be stymied by council procedures that make following along more difficult than in any other Pinellas city. While the City Council may abide by the letter of Florida's open government laws, it regularly violates the spirit of those laws.
Just keeping up with the council's meetings requires bloodhound-like tracking skills. The council meets several times a month in regular session in council chambers on the second floor of City Hall. The agendas are posted on the city's website, stpete.org, the public may attend and make comments, and the meetings can be viewed on TV or on the website.
That's typical of local governments around the bay area. It is what happens before and after the council's regular meetings that makes St. Petersburg unusual.
The council holds frequent "workshops" on topics that other cities would handle in regular meetings or in an occasional work session. St. Petersburg's workshops are held in a conference room where there are no TV cameras and where the public is allowed to watch but not speak.
The decision to withdraw to a setting less accessible to the public is a deliberate one. Earlier this month the council finished its regular televised meeting in chambers, walked downstairs to a conference room where there are no cameras, reconvened and began making decisions about city budget cuts. That the public wasn't there didn't keep the council from making decisions about library hours, park fees and police staffing.
The council has other kinds of meetings that are not typical for Pinellas cities and contribute to keeping the public uninformed.
A half-dozen or more standing subcommittees meet regularly to discuss city business. The subcommittees are composed entirely of council members — usually four to six of the eight council members. But remaining members of the council can and do attend and participate. In effect, they are City Council meetings. Only three of the subcommittees have televised meetings.
The council also regularly convenes as the "committee of the whole," an outdated parliamentary device reserved for large assemblies and originally used by Congress to permit unbridled, full-assembly discussion. St. Petersburg's committee of the whole meetings are not televised, agendas are not posted on the city website, and it is a mystery how the council decides which issues to refer to the committee of the whole.
Whether meeting in workshops, subcommittees or the committee of the whole, the council is making important decisions. Subcommittees decide whether to forward items to regular council meetings and have recently debated topics such as red light cameras, panhandling and alcohol sales. At a committee of the whole meeting in 2002, the City Council decided not to close Albert Whitted Airport — a decision called "monumental" by one council member.
The council already makes it difficult enough for the public to follow along by scheduling most of its meetings during the day. Its unnecessarily complicated meeting arrangements add insult to injury. Long before items show up at the regular City Council meetings where the public can watch and give input, council members often have thoroughly discussed them and know how the vote will go.
The City Council needs to conduct most of its business in its regular televised meetings, just as other cities and counties in the bay area do. If occasional workshops are necessary, those also should be televised.
Forcing residents to run an obstacle course to determine what the council is doing violates the spirit of Florida's sunshine laws. St. Petersburg is entitled to a city government that is open, accessible and comprehensible. Instead, this City Council appears intent on being closed, clubby and confusing.