COOPER CITY -- Jan. 15, 2007
Cooper City dinners may put heat on incumbentsResident anger about Cooper City's pre-meeting dinners could create a couple of hotly contested races in the normally quiet suburb.
BY BREANNE GILPATRICK
SPOTS AT STAKE: Both Linda Ferrara and John Valenti face challengers for their commission seats. While many Broward mayors and city commissioners sailed to automatic reelection last week, two Cooper City leaders weren't so lucky.
Challengers filed last week to run against both of the incumbents whose seats are at stake in the city's March 13 primary.
In both cases, the challengers cited the City Commission's recently discontinued practice of holding private dinners before the public commission meetings. An investigation of the meetings aired in November on Herald news partner WFOR-CBS4.
Florida's Government in the Sunshine law generally forbids commissioners from discussing city business at a private meeting. But commissioners have said no city business was discussed at the meetings, although they were paid for by the taxpayers.
Then-Gov. Jeb Bush asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to conduct a preliminary inquiry into the dinners to see if any laws were violated.
The situation might not bode well for incumbents Linda Ferrara and John Valenti, said Mitch Ceasar, Broward's Democratic Party chairman.
''Incumbents generally only lose when there is some scandal with his or herself, or the city as a whole is embroiled in scandal,'' he said.
In fact, officials in some cities automatically won reelection when no one filed to run against them by last week's deadline.
Miramar Mayor Lori Moseley, Pompano Beach Mayor Lamar Fisher and Pembroke Park Mayor Emma Shoaff all were automatically reelected.
Contested races on March 13 will include a Miramar City Commission seat and contests in Dania Beach, Davie and Hallandale Beach.
Hollywood will have a special election Feb. 13 to replace suspended Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom.
In Cooper City, frustration about the commission dinners helped persuade John Sims to join the race on the final day of the qualifying period, challenging Valenti.
The dinners also led Lisa Mallozzi to challenge Ferrara.
Since November, Sims and Mallozzi have attended every City Commission meeting to condemn the dinners, even writing to Gov. Jeb Bush about the gatherings.
''This is nothing personal,'' Mallozzi said at the Jan. 9 meeting. ``I feel that Cooper City needs a new image.
'I want to see Cooper City become `Someplace Special' again,'' she said, quoting the town motto.
Both Ferrara and Valenti have said they're going to let FDLE complete its inquiry before discussing the dinners.
And Ferrara said she'd rather focus her campaign on issues like road safety and school quality.
But the dinners weren't the only reason Sims decided to run, he said.
He said he also would like to see more dialogue between the city and its residents.
For example, Sims said he'd like residents to have more time to speak at commission meetings. ''If it takes until 1 o'clock in the morning to listen to what everybody has to say before we make a decision, I think that's what we should do,'' Sims said. ``I have no other agenda than returning the government to the people.''
The city now limits public comments to 30 minutes, with more time allowed at the end if the meeting ends before 11 p.m. Residents also have the opportunity to speak about an agenda item when the commission prepares to debate it.
But even if the dinners do become a major issue, people frequently forgive elected officials, and voter memories often are relatively short, said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University.
The catch: voters usually want an apology first. And as Cooper City commissioners have said, they haven't apologized because they don't feel they've done anything wrong.
''If you come out and admit you've made a mistake, people are willing to forgive,'' Jarvis said. ``We are very into notions of forgiveness.''
Linda Ferrara & John Valenti, Incumbents