By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org
Emotions boiled as the Cooper City commissioners talked angrily over each other.
“You do this crap all the time,” Commissioner John Sims shouted at then-Mayor Debby Eisinger, accusing her of trying to ram through a commission vote to spend money to send flyers to residents about an upcoming city vote to change the town charter. “I’ve had it up to here.”
“You are extremely disruptive,” Eisinger fired back during that Aug. 12, 2012 commission meeting.
“No, you are extremely dumb…,” Sims replied.
A video of the meeting shows that at one point Sims stood and leaned toward the mayor. Another commissioner, sitting between them, rose to separate them. A woman shouted, “Stop it! Stop it!” The sheriff’s captain, responsible for Cooper City law enforcement, approached the dais to calm the politicians.
Yet Cooper City’s official minutes of that meeting make no mention of the 12-minute donnybrook.
Why? City Clerk Susan Poling offered an answer at a commission meeting one month later.
“Sometimes it’s a little embarrassing to put in details you really don’t want the public to know about,” Poling said.
INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MINUTES
The record does not establish the basis for change, but since the latter half of 2008 the minutes of Cooper City commission meetings have been shrinking. Or as local political activist Skip Klauber puts it, “scrubbed.”
Sims complained to Poling at the Sept. 12, 2012 meeting after seeing no mention of the angry encounter the month before in the official minutes.
“You really got to be kidding me, Ms. Poling,” said Sims. “Who is telling you to manipulate the minutes, Ms. Poling?”
Poling denied manipulating the minutes and explained that commission minutes had been reduced to “action minutes” which only record official actions or commission votes and do not summarize discussions.
Commissioner Lisa Mallozzi said action minutes were instituted to save staff time and resources. “Nothing is being hidden, nothing is being thrown under a carpet. This is a more effective way to use our staff time,” she said.
Cooper City commission minutes were not always brief. Based on information Sims provided the Florida Attorney General, the minutes in 2007 averaged more than 18 pages and in the first half of 2008 averaged more than 13 pages.
CHANGE IN POLITICAL WINDS
But the political winds in Cooper City shifted in 2008. Bruce D. Loucks replaced long-time City Manager Christopher Farrell after the commission voted Farrell out. Thirty-year City Clerk Susan Bernard retired. City Attorney Alan F. Ruf was fired and replaced by David Wolphin.
During the second half of 2008 commission meeting minutes averaged about 8 pages. In 2012, the average had dipped to fewer than 6 pages.
In an interview, Greg Ross, who took over as mayor last November, noted that video recordings of commission meetings supplement the minutes. The videos are available on demand on the city’s web site and because of the videos, there was no reason for lengthening minutes, he said.
Carla Miller, founder of City Ethics, a non-profit organization that provides local governments with ethics training and programs, agreed with Ross that supplementing minutes with videos is good practice.
“If you have a video tape of it, to have 10 pages (of minutes) and not 16 pages is sufficient,” Miller said, adding that state law does not require “verbatim notes”.
But Daniel Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida a non-profit that promotes integrity in government, was critical of Cooper City’s practice. He said recording thorough accounts of commission deliberations in the minutes “would save Cooper City residents the hassle of going through hours of videos.”
“It is important for the public to be able to understand their officials…and their decision making,”
Krassner added. “More detailed minutes offer greater public understanding of how decisions are debated and decided.”
Commissioner Sims made a similar argument in lengthy complaints to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in 2012 and to Broward Inspector General John Scott in 2013 where he argued that Cooper City was violating the state’s Sunshine Law.
“Trying to find what you want to watch on a three-plus hour video is a frustrating and highly imperfect process,” Sims wrote. “Unless someone tells you where to look, the Internet (video of commission meetings) in no way makes up for the bare, unlawfully taken minutes.”
Neither Bondi nor Scott, however, would investigate Sims’ allegations.
Florida Assistant Attorney General Lagran Saunders’s two-page response to Sims noted that the Sunshine Law does not define “minutes.” He added that his office could not investigate unless a majority of the Cooper City Commission requested an inquiry.
Broward Inspector General Scott did not reply to him in writing, Sims said. Instead, a staffer telephoned him to report that his request for an inquiry had been rejected.
Nevertheless, Sims continues to accuse “the commission, the city manager and the city attorney” of “washing the minutes” because they “do not want the public to know what is going on.”
That includes the scrubbing of other official minutes, Sims said.
In his complaint to Bondi, Sims noted that the minutes of Cooper City’s Charter Review Board meetings also have fallen. Charter Review Boards meet every five years to consider changes in the city charter. In 2006, the average length of the boards minutes was eight pages; last year, about 3 ½ pages.
Klauber, a member of the 2012 Charter Review Board, said the board’s minutes were “dumbed down…to the point of uselessness.”
Klauber said minutes of the Planning and Zoning Board are now “garbage.” Under Ro Woodward, a city administrative coordinator who prepared them, the minutes were detailed. But after she retired this year, he said, quality departed with her.
A records review revealed that the four 2012 Planning and Zoning Board meetings Woodward attended produced minutes that averaged 16 pages. The four 2013 meeting minutes posted thus far on line average less five pages.
Michelle Alvarez is the administrative assistant to Cooper City manager Loucks, who was unavailable for comment.
Alvarez said in an email that the city’s advisory boards have the “option” of audio recording their meetings to help prepare minutes. She said the city’s Planning and Zoning and Pension boards do audio record their meetings. Audio recordings are retained for two years but are not posted online.
Official minutes are permanent, she added.