Editors note: We’re privileged to have this submission from former Tallahassee Commissioner Debbie Lightsey, whose experience on the Commission dates back to the days of the Mayor-Commissioner setup.
By Debbie Lightsey
I’m very concerned with a trend we are witnessing in local government, away from practices of the days when Tallahassee had an international reputation for excellence in governance instead of scandalous headlines about Governance, Inc.
The roles and responsibilities of elected officials have diminished significantly — meetings are shorter and less frequent, with more time devoted to staff presentations and less to debate. Commissioners frequently refer to staff briefings to convince us they are well-informed, but the public does not attend these closed-door briefings.
Frequently the staff recommendation is approved without discussion. It all leads to less time for the public to become informed on current issues, to be involved and taken seriously when they have a view to offer. This is not good government practice.
The County Commission not long ago decided to reduce its schedule to one regular meeting per month, while the number of Blueprint IA meetings per year has also been reduced — with one regularly-scheduled meeting even abruptly canceled by Blueprint Chair Nick Maddox citing simply “a light agenda.”
City Commission meetings are run as if most folks had some place more important to be. Meetings have been adjourned while Commissioners were bringing up an issue or waiting to be recognized. At a recent joint City/County Comp Plan Adoption Hearing, a Commissioner who was seeking additional information was told that no more would come as a result of a delay and that a No vote was not supported by precedent. An elected official was in effect told that a No vote was unacceptable.
We are seeing in each succeeding step the increasing power and dominance of Management and executive-level professional staff who are never without bias.
For years at the City, budget workshops consumed two full days — one for operating expenditures and one for the capital budget. Individual department heads attended, discussed major programs, staffing changes, challenges and successes. Now we are down to maybe a half-day, which encompasses the total budget. That’s simply not enough for serious debate and a real local democracy to function properly.
But now, without adequate public notice, the budget workshop scheduled for July 13th on Wednesday was cancelled. The workshop has been reduced to one item on the regular City Commission agenda.
This is a budget of roughly a billion taxpayer dollars and which impacts every aspect of our daily lives.
What we don’t hear is the majority of our elected officials protesting. It’s time they got to work and brought back the proper balance between staff and the elected governing boards.
Former Mayor-Commissioner Debbie Lightsey served on the Tallahassee City Commission from 1989-2009. She also sits on the Board of Alliance for Tallahassee Neighborhoods and frequently advises local policymakers. The Debbie Lightsey Nature Park is named in her honor