HIGH SPRINGS – A proposed resolution guiding elected official civility culminated in a heated confrontation between two High Springs city commissioners and the tabling of the resolution to a later commission meeting.
At the March 14, 2013 High Springs City Commission meeting City Attorney Scott Walker presented Resolution 2013-C for consideration, which was designed to establish a code of conduct and ethics for the mayor, commissioners and other charter officers. Walker prepared the resolution following comments previously expressed by Vice-Mayor Scott Jamison and High Springs resident Suzie Ann Clark regarding the lack of civility on the part of one commissioner toward members of the public and fellow commissioners in his blog.
Walker said he researched what some other cities included in their civility resolutions, reviewed the City of High Springs Employee Handbook to see what was expected of the City’s employees and also incorporated language from Jamison’s earlier comments to create the resolution.
In presenting the resolution, Walker said there had been some controversy in the past and the resolution came out of a desire to help with this issue. He further emphasized that more and more cities are now crafting civility expectations into formal statements for their elected officials.
Commissioner Bob Barnas said the resolution was “one-sided” and a violation of his right to free speech. He further expressed displeasure that City Attorney Walker took it upon himself, without the consent of the entire commission, to create the resolution because of one commissioner’s comments.
Commissioner Linda Gestrin agreed that the resolution was an attack on free speech, adding it was a form of bullying.
Walker disagreed, stating he did not feel it was a violation. “The intent was to head off divisiveness,” he said.
Jamison said he believed that public officials are held to a higher standard and should at least “adhere to the same level of civility that we hold our employees to.”
Jamison added, “When someone enters into public office, it is a 24-hour a day position.” Stating he was in favor of the resolution, Jamison said, “The resolution does not deny anyone the right to voice their opinion,” but it should be expressed civilly. “It isn’t too much to ask for the commissioners to be just as respectful of the citizens as the citizens are expected to be to the commissioners.”
Mayor Sue Weller commented that the Commission is the “face of the City and we have an obligation to present ourselves in a manner becoming the position.” She requested the resolution be tabled to allow commissioners time to review it and take a further look at it at the next meeting.
Commissioner Byran Williams moved to table the resolution and Mayor Weller passed the gavel to Vice-Mayor Jamison and seconded the motion.
Following several minutes of citizen comments, pro and con, and a suggestion that the resolution be incorporated into an existing document, Comissioners Barnas and Williams got into a heated discussion.
Barnas claimed he knew which way the vote would go. He read the third principal of a local citizens’ group, Concerned Citizens for a Better High Springs, which was written in November 2012. He said that Mayor Weller, Vice-Mayor Jamison and Commissioner Williams’ names appear on the list and they “seem to be the new majority.” Barnas further said they are going to vote on a resolution that was put forth months ago, where meetings were held to talk about civility and code of conduct.
Williams challenged Barnas’s allegation, asking how someone can say how he is going to vote. Williams said that he, like the other commissioners, had just been given the resolution that night and had not had a chance to review it yet.
“If truth be known, I was going to vote against it,” Williams said. “This is the kind of stuff that tears this city apart.” He added that assuming how a commissioner will vote is “disrespectful,” and asked, “When are we going to grow up?” He suggested it was time that the citizens and commissioners came together to do what was best for the City.
At that point, Williams called the question and the proposed civility resolution was tabled with a 4-1 vote with Jamison casting the no vote.
It is expected that matter will be discussed again at the March 28, 2013 commission meeting.
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