From the start, it was clear that the newly seated City Council would interact a little differently than in years past.
Perhaps even before they were sworn in, the newly elected councilors gave an indication that things would be a little different with them. Councilors Jerry Gibson, Frank Recker, Wayne Waldack and incumbent Bill Trotter campaigned together, running for four open seats on virtually the same platform. They advertised together, went to events together, and on election night, they celebrated together.
So it was no real surprise Monday night when Gibson informed everyone that he would be calling them by their first names.
“I don’t see anything wrong with calling Frank ‘Frank’ or Chuck (Kiester) ‘Chuck,’ ” he said. “If I call him ‘Mr. Recker,’ he’ll know that I’m really angry.”
He said this soon after removing his tie, saying, “Quite frankly, I do not feel the need for a tie.”
Recker agreed, telling the council it was likely the last time they would see him wearing a tie at a meeting.
“Whether you call it casual or business casual, that’s what I’d like with our meetings,” Recker said.
Kiester, who said he felt good about the first session with the new council members, took to the suggestions.
“I like the idea of not wearing a tie,” he said in an interview after the meeting.
On the issue of first names versus last names, he said he can see a place for both, depending on the context of a discussion. He said he will still refer to Trotter as “Mr. Chairman,” but that during discussion of less complex agenda items, when a more relaxed atmosphere prevails, he could happily refer to his fellow councilors by first name.
“In workshop settings, which is what Trotter did the other evening, first names are great,” Kiester said. “Perhaps in making formal decisions on items that I have to be acted upon, then maybe it should revert back to last names.”
Trotter, who was elected chair of the council at the start of the meeting, said in an interview that he would continue wearing a tie and calling his fellow councilors by their last names, but that he had no problem with others following a different beat. He told the council at Monday night’s meeting that he planned to come back with a number of recommendations for the council on possible procedural changes, including phasing out the rule requiring residents to sign in before speaking to the council on agenda items.
He suggested allowing people to sign in, and giving registered speakers priority to approach the microphone, but removing it as a requirement. The rule is only about a year old.
“Each chair sort of brings some recommendations or points of view on how they would like things handled,” Trotter said. “This would allow easier access for the public to make comments.”
Trotter said he has received phone calls from residents over his four years on council who have expressed feeling too intimidated to speak at council meetings, in spite of having legitimate concerns to bring before council.
“We can’t eliminate that totally, but I’m trying to create an atmosphere that people feel more comfortable getting up and speaking,” he said.
Fellow council members complimented Trotter at the end of Monday night for helping foster such an atmosphere. Most said they felt that the casual tone of discussion allowed them to speak their minds and interact during the important discussion of city manager applicants.
“The chair really set the tone for a more informal discussion on city manager hiring,” Kiester said.
With all but one of the councilors serving , the council is relatively young, and they are faced with the task of hiring a city manager to take over for the city’s only-ever permanent manager. Interim City Manager Tony Shoemaker has only committed to stay through the end of the month.
As discussion flowed past the 9:30 p.m. mark after a council vote to extend the meeting, it was obvious that the newly elected council is one that enjoys extensive conversation. Gibson underscored that point when he made a request to move the council communication portion of the meeting earlier. When a meeting gets close to running late, council communication sometimes gets glazed over in favor of a motion to dismiss the session.
“I’m concerned about lack of communication between the councilors,” Gibson said. “This part of the meeting is crucial to the proper running of our city. I don’t think we should ever, ever, ever skip communications.”
Because of Florida’s Government in the Sunshine laws, two City Councilors cannot meet outside of the public eye to discuss city business. Unless a member discusses something with city staff and it consequently gets brought up at a council meeting, that topic does not get brought up among the full council.
“Every council is a little different in terms of its personalities and the makeup,” Trotter said. “It’s important to utilize everyone’s input on an ongoing basis rather than being quite so structured. I’d like to get more of a dialogue. I felt in the last council we didn’t get a chance to interact as much, so I think that’s something I tried to start with and will continue.”
Butch Neylon, a candidate for City Council in the recent election, was present at the first meeting of the new City Council. He was a regular at council meetings before the election, and he has vowed to stay active in the city’s political process.
“I was thrilled to death,” Neylon said. “I think they’re strong. I think that they are going to provide the leadership that we definitely need. I think things are going to change.”
Neylon, who ran on a platform to stop sewers, said he was pretty similar to the elected councilors in his philosophy on everything other than sewers. With voters having roundly reaffirmed the sewer program, the issue is settled and the city can move on to other issues, Neylon said.
“There are people there that, even though they’re new, they’re not afraid to speak up and they have their opinions,” Neylon said.
Shoemaker, who said had little desire to comment on his bosses, said simply that “they seemed to have a good interchange with each other.”