Thursday, March 09, 2006

Accountability and City Government

I (and many others) received this e-mail from Commissioner Shelin today:

The City Commission and Charter officials held an informal meeting recently to discuss the ideas and concerns that were documented during the accountability community conversations of last October at New College. There was considerable discussion about the themes that ran through the ideas and the group concluded that much of the participants concerns centered on a lack of understanding of governmental processes including a misunderstanding of legal and constitutional issues especially as they relate to land development issues where the City can't simply stop projects because some citizens don't like them.

There was a strong belief amongst those participating in the meeting that while the City of Sarasota provides for an unusual level of public in-put into its decision-making, that still hasn't resulted in a better understanding of how government works. That lack of understanding leads to unhappiness with government decision making and a negative perception of the quality of the decisions and those making them.

The recent, very successful completion of the Citizen's Academy provided a model for further discussion because of the uniformly positive response to it by attendees. Noteworthy amongst those responses was that a number of people said that they now understood better why and how decisions were made. In fact, there seemed to be an ah-ha moment for several people when they connected Constitution provisions to the way in which the various constituencies are served by the City Commission and Administration. In other words, all the city government customers deserve equitable treatment at the hands of city government.

Because of the negative character that often characterizes the public debate in Sarasota, discussion ensured about how to turn that into a constructive debate. A conclusion was reached that the City Commission would charge Charter Officials with the development of approaches similar to the Citizen's Academy so that constructive ideas and suggestions would be more apt to be brought to the public debate rather than complaints. The public would be encouraged to use their assets to develop constructive problem solving actions.

The discussion will continue.

Ken Shelin

The original invitation to this "conversation" was:

For several years, there have been discussions and calls for better accountability from all levels of our city government. This community has become a more urban and sophisticated city than in the past and is attracting people from all over the world used to amenities not often found in communities of our physical size and population.

This conversation to which you are being invited jointly by me (Ken Shelin), The Downtown Partnership and the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations, is deliberately intended to be a wide-ranging discussion of all kinds of ideas, some of which may be developed into recommendations for change in our city government so that it can meet the challenges of today as well as the future.
Previous postings concerning the "Accountability Conversations" are here and here.
Commissioner Shelin sent an approximate 10 page document detailing the suggestions that were made during the three sessions that he held with residents in Oct of 2005. The executive summary of this document is printed here:

Accountability Suggestions

Executive Summary

Because the issue of accountability has been the subject of political concerns and elections for several years in the City of Sarasota; and because the City now appears to be in the throes of significant change in terms of it demographics, its land development, and its character as an urban entity, it seemed time to engage in a series of community conversations about what accountability meant to members of the community as it related to its government.

Therefore, three such conversations were sponsored by The Downtown Partnership, the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations and City Commissioner Ken Shelin to answer the question, "What possibilities inspire you to assure accountability in City of Sarasota government?" Those conversations were held at the Sudakoff Center of New College on October 27th, 2005 (2 sessions) and on October 30th, 2005.

Numerous individual suggestions were made during the discussions, but several themes emerged which justify further exploration especially those which suggest a change in the form of government. Those themes were:
  • Elected mayor
  • Strategic leadership by the City Commission
  • Well-documented actions by all levels of city government
  • Skilled management by the City Manager and Administration
  • Outreach by all levels of City government to educate citizens on its processes and decision making
  • Opportunities for public input into government decision-making processes.
  • Proactive public information activities
If you wish to receive a copy of this document you could e-mail Commissioner Shelin or myself. Please indicate you wish to have a copy of Commissioner Shelin's summary of the "Accountability Conversations" document.
I also received the following message on Jan 18. No message about this informal meeting was received and no agenda concerning this meeting is posted on the city web site.

The City Commission received the suggestions from the Accountability community conversations in a positive light and decided to refer the suggestions for the City Manager, City Administration and City Auditor and Clerk to each for internal review, discussion and an eventual report back to the Commission on what was done with the suggestions for their areas of responsibility. The City Commission decided to initiate discussions of the suggestions for it during informal meetings that are held periodically to discuss a wide variety of topics. There is no public in-put during those meetings, but I will advise you of the time and place of the next one since the public may attend.

Ken Shelin


Susan Chapman said...

All of these accountability discussions are about appearing to be accountable without actually being accountable to one's constituents. Many citizens are civil and have a keen understanding of the development process and what constitutes substantial competent evidence. However, certain commissioners are so overly sensitive that being direct in comments is interpreted as not being civil. Being accountable is first and foremost having an open mind to the input of those who elected you.

Anonymous said...

It is really sad the way the commission filtered the community discussions about accountability to he listed few points.

What exactly is STAFF suppose to do with:

Elected Mayor - are they suppose to come up with ways to get one?

Strategic leadership by the City Commission - I would like to know how STAFF is going to come up with strategic leadership that the City Commission will follow.

Well- documented action sby all levels of city government - this already is done on a daily basis without being overly paper happy. What is STAFF suppose to do? Maybe everyone should have a video attached to their heads. Somehow I do remember one of the publics comments was that the citizens and Commissioners need to stop micro managing the city staff!!

Skilled management bythe City Manager and Admisistration - We already have skilled department heads, some of the best around and the City Manager is skilled so what is STAFF suppose to suggest on this one? Bosses need to take more courses?

Outreach by all levels of city government to educate citizens on its processes and decision making - Okay, we have a city that is beyond accessable, in fact it is city day at the farmer's market tomorrow (remember this is a early Saturday morning deal that is their DAY OFF - to give to the public), BLOGS, Citizen academy, honestly those really interested in process can learn this fairly easily. IT IS THE COMMISSIONERS THAT NEED TO GIVE US BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF THEIR DECISIONS!! How is STAFF going to give Commissioners an outline how to explain themselves?

Opportunities for public input into government decision-making process - OKAY this is a resonable request but we already have pretty good input into our governement. THE PROBLEM IS WHEN CITY COMMISSION ACT AS IF THEY ALREADY KNOW THE RIGHT THING TO DO WITHOUT MUCH INPUT. How exactly is STAFF going to get the commissioners to give the public more input time?

Proactive public information activities - Same as Outreach - Farmer's Market this Saturday - duh! The city will attend any meeting, take any call, give any input or lecture and they are suppose to come up with more.

HONESTLY, LET STAFF DO THEIR JOBS! The commissioners' should be taking a hard look at their responsibility to the public.

Thank you KEN for trying to do something.

Anonymous said...

Leave it to Commissioner Shelin to "educate" the public on the real issue- it's not the elected officials that are the problem, but the ill informed public- thank you Ken for setting us all straight. Is it too late to ask for a recall for this clown?

Anonymous said...

The public is clearly supposed to walk on eggshells to avoid stepping on our commisioners' delicate sensibilities. It's worth remembering that SOS defeated their proposal to create an incredibly hideous arccade. It took a number of frustrated and vocal citizens. But, then, of course, the commissioners were deeply offended.

Now that the arcade problem has come and gone, it's been replaced by a gaggle of other issues. Barely time to take a breath. Only united frustration seems to have worked, so far, in addressing the city.

Shelin's dissertation rambles. If he's suggested anything that advances our quality-of-life, please, someone, point it out.

Anonymous said...

A city is constantly changing and working on many difficult and different things at one time, so why is it that you think things should happen at a slower pace for SOS to understand them. I suggest you get more educated and knowledgeable people involved in SOS so the uptake time does not take so long. It is unrealistic to think a board of how many? 2, 4 9? Can study everthing going on and the city should slow down so you catch up.

In all reality this does explain why SOS is against so much because one can hardly expect a small group to understand all the complexities of the city and speak intellegently on all of them. Good effort trying but you hurt many good ideas along the way.