So a Record columnist upset the city attorney – so what?

275-WHITE-NOISEIn an editorial titled, “Right, wrong and the great in between” that appeared in the Sunday March 13, 2016 edition of The St Augustine Record, editorial page editor, Jim Sutton, reveals some things I wish he hadn’t. I hope they are not completely true, because, if they are, our community is not being well served.

First of all, Sutton offers a public apology to the City Attorney and City Manager because a columnist made an observation in an editorial that expressed his impressions about the way the City of St Augustine conducts balloting when filling advisory board positions.

Steve Cottrell’s columns can be pointed for someone who has only lived here a relatively short time and whose political experience is largely based in saloons and on a small California gold rush town of only 3,000 residents. I’d like to think that in 450 years with more than 4-times the population, we’ve developed beyond that — but, maybe not.

The criticism voiced by Cottrell dealt with what he described as “secret balloting” by the commission in the recent appointments to the Historical Architectural Review Board and the Lincolnville Community Redevelopment Area Steering Committee.

City Attorney, Isabelle Lopez, took offense at Cottrell’s criticism of the process used; each commissioner writes the name of their choice on a slip of paper, passes it to the city clerk and attorney, who read them and announce the verdict. The public sees no show of hands, hears no voice vote or other way to immediately know who voted for who; ergo “secret”.

The commissioners write their name and the name of their pick on their slip of paper. The slips of paper are later scanned by the clerk, the tabulation added to the official minutes of the meeting, and the scanned slips are available for public inspection. It is likely that no one in the audience, and specifically Cottrell, would know all of that.

It would have been too simple to call roll so that the results would at once be publicly known, recorded on video and published to the Internet for the world to see. Instead the city uses a method, under the direction of the city attorney, to obnubilate the voting process.

So Cottrell was technically wrong. Okay, The Record publishes a lot of things about the City that are technically wrong, and when they are in the City’s favor, you never see the reporter hung out to dry.

This is Sunshine Week when we celebrate Florida’s open records and open meeting laws. They are the benchmark by which other states are compared. The degree of transparency in everything that government does is critical to the public’s understanding. With transparency comes accountability for the actions of those who govern. Without that, you will no longer have a nation of citizens willing to be governed. Think about that for a moment.

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