City Commission to Meet in Secret Tonight, Then Go Public

Fruitland Park Jan. 21, 2014—City commissioners will meet in secret tonight [starting at 6:30 p.m.] to discuss pending litigation—namely, the class action lawsuit to overturn city utility services fees filed by former commissioner Jim Richardson and former commission candidate Michael Howard.

In 2009, the commission added a utilities service fee to monthly utility bills sent to city residents but not to customers outside the city limits. The two fees—total $8—generate about $100,000 annually for the police and fire budgets.

The police department budget is about $1.1 million.

The fees—commissioners and lawyers maintain they were always voluntary—were intended to offset a shortfall in tax revenues blamed on reduced real estate values and a blossoming recession.

At the last commission meeting on January 9, commissioners voted to rescind the fees pending court approval—a big first step in reaching a settlement. Tonight’s secret meeting will take up the details of a proposed settlement.

Commissioners aren’t permitted to discuss what goes on in a secret meeting or issue minutes until after the pending litigation is resolved.

But as soon as the secret meeting adjourns, Mayor Chris Bell will convene the public meeting, during which commissioners may hold an official vote on any agreement they may reach during the secret meeting.

Presumably, that would mean conditions for a settlement. Reportedly, any settlement will cost city taxpayers $500,000 or more.

Tonight’s meeting could result in a vindication of sorts for Richardson.

In February, 2010, Richardson ran against four opponents to fill the unexpired term of Commissioner Darrel E. Martin, who had died the previous November from cancer. Ironically Michael Howard—Richardson’s co-plaintiff in the class action suit— was one of those opponents.

Only 239 people voted—about 10 percent of registered voters.

In the March runoff, Richardson beat Linda Rodrick for the seat.

Throughout his two-year term, Richardson added a combative and sometimes antagonistic element to commission debates. Often, but not always, he cast a lone dissenting vote. He lambasted the commission for its support of Police Chief Mark Isom, who later resigned in a scandal over his diploma-mill credentials. He was likewise critical of City Manager Ralph Bowers, whose resignation was prompted by a sex scandal.

In February, 2013, Richardson filed suit alleging city commissioners and staff directors stepped over the line opposing him in his reelection campaign. The city settled that suit for $150,000 last summer.

If the city settles the class action suit, only one Richardson-inspired hurdle remains: the FDLE investigation of many of the same allegations contained in the civil suit.
Mayor Chris Bell has said repeatedly he welcomes that investigation as a way to put the issue to rest.

Since losing his seat, Richardson has doggedly pursued his claims against the city, appearing frequently on WFTV-Channel 9 News and an even more frequent in the commentaries of veteran journalist Lauren Ritchie at the Orlando Sentinel.

Whether tonight’s meeting will vindicate Michael Howard—who loudly proclaimed commissioners’ actions “criminal” at the January 9 meeting—is yet to be seen.

Commissioners also plan to discuss the formation of a Charter Review Committee.

Commissioners proposed forming a Charter Review Committee in August. The committee will review the city’s charter and propose any appropriate amendments after holding public meetings to learn what residents want.

One issue the committee will study is changing the way residents vote for commissioners and their mayor. Currently all commissioners are elected at large. The committee will look at forming single-member districts.

The regularly scheduled city commission meeting on Thursday night—Jan. 23—has been canceled.

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