Charter Review Advisory Committee debates when to suspend council members

SEBASTIAN - The city of Sebastian has just begun its review of the City Charter.

The Charter Review Advisory Committee is made up of 15 members, 10 of whom are appointed by the city council, plus five at-large members. Beth Mitchell is the chair, and Louise Kautenburg is vice chair.

The committee meets for six months once every five years, starting in January. The committee reviews the City Charter, conducts hearings, reviews staff recommendations, and recommends changes to the City Council.

There was an organizational meeting on Dec. 15, followed by the first two substantive meetings on Jan. 19 and Feb. 9.

So far, the changes being recommended seem triggered by last year’s city council disputes regarding Sunshine Law violations. Some members and staff want changes to address the problems that happened in 2020 regarding an illegal city council meeting, while others expressed concern about over-reacting.

At the Jan. 19 meeting, the committee discussed City Charter Article I, Creation and Powers, and it began discussion of Article II, which deals with all aspects of the City Council. There was discussion of expanding City Council from five to seven members, but there was not a consensus.

At the Feb. 9 meeting, the committee continued discussion of Article II. City Council; Article III. Administration and Legal Departments; and Article IV. Elections. At the next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 25, they will go through Article V, General Provisions, and Article VI, Transition.

Public input is invited after the introduction of each article.

On Feb. 9, city staff recommended new sections concerning suspension from office for Sunshine Law violations.

Staff recommended adding a section that reads: “A Council Member or the Mayor shall be suspended from his/her office if he/she is arrested for a felony or for a misdemeanor related to the duties of office or for a Sunshine Law violation.” In addition, staff recommended adding “The City Council, with the advice of the City Attorney, will hold a Special Hearing to consider a vote to remove or suspend a Council Member or Mayor if in violation.”

Staff also recommended adding “If the Council Member or Mayor is acquitted or found not guilty or is otherwise cleared of the charges which were the basis of the arrest, indictment, or information by reason of which he/she was suspended, then the City Council shall forthwith revoke the suspension and restore the Council Member or Mayor to office.”

Committee Member John Christino expressed concern about suspension for any violation of the Sunshine Law. Mr. Christino referred to past instances, before the 2020 incident, such as an innocent conversation about lawn mowing. Mr. Christino expressed concern that a person would be suspended from the City Council for something minor.

“To me it’s knee-jerk,” Mr. Christino said. “I don’t think we should alter our charter in such a way that it could be used as an instrument of power, to control council.” Mr. Christino said he approved of removing someone from City Council for a felony, but not for a minor misdemeanor. He expressed opposition to kicking someone off the City Council simply for talking improperly about lawn mowing or tennis courts.

“I disagree with suspending a council member under a misdemeanor violation of the Sunshine Law, because that is so broad and encompasses so many areas,” Mr. Christino said. “I see potential for it to be abused.”

Committee Member Michael Goodfellow disagreed.

“It’s just prudent to suspend somebody who has been charged with a violation of the Sunshine Law, whether the charge is misdemeanor or a felony, that doesn’t really matter, both of them are criminal,” Mr. Goodfellow said. “If a non-criminal violation of the Sunshine Law is being charged, for that I can see somebody remaining on Council while it’s being taken care of.”

City staff also recommended a change to how charter officers may be removed from office. The current provision says “Any charter officer may be removed from office for cause, or without cause pursuant to the terms of an employment agreement, by a majority vote of the City Council.” Staff recommended changing that to require a supermajority vote of four of the five City Council members.

Another new provision under discussion also flowed from unique circumstances of 2020, this time the COVID pandemic. In 2020 there were disputes as to when and how special meetings could be called during a state of emergency.

City staff recommended a new provision that says “If a public emergency exists, any council member or charter officer may call a special meeting. The content or agenda for the meeting shall be germane to the emergency, necessary to protect the public interest and in response to the Local State of Emergency, if declared. Due to the emergency, there shall be reasonable advance notice of any special council meeting called that is fair under the circumstances and necessary to protect the public interest.”

The next meeting is set for Feb. 25, at which time the committee will go through Articles V and VI. To view the agenda for the next meeting and meeting minutes as they are approved, visit www.cityofsebastian.org/AgendaCenter.

To read the City Charter as it currently exists, visit www.cityofsebastian.org/DocumentCenter/View/1133/City-of-Sebastian-Charter-PDF.

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