With no help from the City Charter, commissioners are writing their own job descriptions
It’s not easy being an Apopka City Commissioner. There is not a “how to” manual or even any guidance provided in the City Charter. City Commissioners are left to define these roles for themselves.
Take the example of Commissioner Kyle Becker’s approach to an email he received from Pater Fazekas.
Fazekas is the owner of Tennis Galaxy and a tennis professional that gives lessons at the Northwest Recreation Complex courts. He contacted Becker in October of 2016 about his contract with the City. He told Becker he believed his fees were too high. He was paying $6,300 per year for the use of one court, which is more than it costs for the City to maintain all four courts ($5,200). Becker met with Fazekas and agreed with his proposal to pay $1,500 per year plus an additional $2,000 per year to go towards improvements to the courts. At a February 15th City Council meeting, he made a case for Fazekas during the City Commissioner Report and made a motion to accept Fazekas’ proposal.
The pushback from City Attorney Cliff Shepard and Mayor Joe Kilsheimer was immediate.
“There’s a lot to say, but I’ll focus on one thing, you can’t make a motion on a contract,” said Shepard. “It’s not your purview.”
“So the motion is out of order?” Kilsheimer asked.
“It is,” said Shepard,” It’s a violation of…”
“How do I make it in order?” Becker asked.
“I think what the City Attorney has said is it’s not in the purview of the City Council to make a contract,” said Kilsheimer. “Contracts are delegated to the administration.”
“So there’s no course of action I can take on this contract is what you’re telling me?” Becker asked.
“We can’t negotiate a contract from the Council, no,” said Kilsheimer.
“I would really like to understand how to take a direction on this,” Becker said to City Administrator Glenn Irby. “Because my understanding is that you’re taking direction from Council, yet if I’m not able to provide any sort of feedback to change the course of this action, then what the hell are we doing?”
That is a lot of tension in a City Council meeting for a minor contract (in relation to a $100 million budget). Did Becker take it too far, or is this how a city commissioner should approach a resident’s request for assistance?
A month later at the March 15th City Council meeting, Fazekas’ contract had made it to the Consent Agenda. Fazekas signed the agreement, but he described the deal as a “take it or leave it” prospect.
Becker was not finished with this issue.
“I want to renew my concern from two meetings ago because this is directly what I was talking about during the council meetings,” Becker said. “I don’t like the contract. I don’t think there has been a negotiation for a more fair deal. For my understanding in talking with (City) staff, they just came up with a certain percentage of his revenue and that’s what we’re going to charge him. I don’t think that’s the right approach.”
“This contract was negotiated a year-and-a-half ago for that rate,” said Apopka Recreation Director David Burgoon. “An initial proposal to Peter (Fazekas) was 20% of his total intake, which is consistent for all instructors. Through negotiation with him, we came up with the $525 a month rate. It is something we are going to look at in the upcoming budget.”
“But what re-negotiation has occurred in this cycle?” Becker asked.
“This year we had discussions with him (Fazekas) about re-negotiating his contract. We found it in the best interests of the City and department to keep it as it is, to be fair to everyone else we have under contract currently.”
“So you didn’t negotiate with him,” Becker said. “You told him he would get the same contract?”
“What we’re trying to do is apply some consistency across the board,” said Kilsheimer. Maybe other users of other facilities don’t use the same percentage of the facility that Peter does, but the overall approach is to apply the same consistency from one program to another.”
“My problem is that the consistency is 20% of the revenue of instruction to use the recreational facilities with zero regards to what it costs actually to maintain that facility, correct? Becker asked.
“Correct,” said Burgoon.
“It’s just a philosophical difference like I said before,” said Becker. “I don’t think it’s an accurate way to approach it.”
“Here’s the truth,” said Kilsheimer. “Before Dave (Burgoon) got here there was no consistency whatsoever. Some people got the facilities for free, and some had to pay through the nose. In the first few years since we got here, there is a bare minimum of consistency. It’s now clear we need to refine this process. You (Becker) have brought a level of analysis and refinement to this discussion that previously never took place. So I take your point. You make a good point and I have no problem with the point you’re making. But let’s be consistent and have this discussion at budget time.”
Again, a lot of pushback for a negotiation that lands somewhere between $3,500 – $6,300 per year. Did Becker overreach on this issue or is this within the parameters of how a city commissioner should respond on behalf of a resident? What exactly is the role of a city commissioner? Should they take on staff and administration if necessary? Or are they more appropriately an advise and consent body similar to the US Senate?
Becker explained that he believes this sort of advocacy is part of what it takes to be a city commissioner.
“Unfortunately our charter does not have a lengthy job description in terms of the day-to-day role of a Commissioner, but rather lays out the powers vested in our collective Council,” said Becker. “I personally approach the role as an advocate for residents and businesses of our city. That advocacy or representation is not limited to a Council meeting agenda twice a month, I enjoy meeting and listening to those I serve to understand their unique situations so I can contribute value-added discussion during our public meetings.”
Commissioner Doug Bankson’s list is comprehensive, but the City budget is his primary focus.
“I would say in practicality it is somewhat of a hybrid system,” he said. “Though the flow chart shows the citizens of Apopka and underneath them the city council then the mayor them the staff, we are still a strong mayoral type of government. So staff responds directly to the mayor and we have oversight limited by certain areas spelled out in the charter. Probably our strongest responsibility is in establishing the budget which is still prepared by the staff according to the mayor’s agenda and then discussed through our city workshops and eventually presented to the public and voted on by the council. Many other issues we learn about sometimes as little as the day before a council meeting. It is our responsibility to weigh in and vote upon these measures when presented. I would prefer to have more public response time to make sure we are reading the pulse of the community correctly and responding accordingly. This was the purpose of the visioning process, however there have arisen issues that are not truly resolved and must be amended. While it is impossible to please all people, the general consensus is the best way to move forward.”
Commissioner Diane Velazquez feels that getting citizens involved in government is a major part of being a commissioner.
“It’s my opinion that one of the most important roles a city commissioner has, is to encourage the residents in the community to get and stay involved in the process of governing our city,” she said. “I think that whenever possible, our residents should attend city council meetings and express their will by participating in our local elections. The concerns of our residents, and of our business community are important and should be discussed and considered when city officials take action and make decisions that will affect the community in general. I’ll always encourage and invite all our community members to be part and experience the process of democracy by being accessible and accountable. Additionally, I think that one of the most important and rewarding aspects of being your elected City Commissioner is that it has allowed me to meet so many caring, hardworking and decent people that make up the Apopka community. It’s not just individuals and families, but also local business people that care and service our community. I consider it a privilege and an honor to be your voice and representative as a member of the city council. On a personal note, I am your representative in city hall, but I’m also an active ambassador for the city of Apopka. I consider it my responsibility to promote our city to as many as possible. Apopka is a wonderful community with beautiful natural resources, rich in history, friendly people, and still, holds its Florida ambiance. As Apopka grows, I will continue to be involved in the decision-making process of our great city, with your blessing, of course.”
That’s three commissioners with different approaches and a range of different priorities in their job descriptions. Perhaps leaving the role of a commissioner open-ended on the City Charter was a wise omission by its authors.