Cooper City commission meetings become more combative
By Georgia East
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
August 31, 2007
Upset over how the city manager addressed her at a commission meeting, activist Gladys Wilson filed a complaint with the governor asking him to intervene and make sure the meetings are run properly.
Mayor Debby Eisinger also was concerned with restoring order when, at two different City Commission meetings, she called for a recess during public comments that had become too raucous.
Then, last week, City Commissioner John Sims apologized for his conduct at a prior meeting, when he tried several times to overrule the mayor.
"Believe me when I tell you that all of us have heard just how poorly the last commission meeting was managed and conducted and how poorly we all, including some residents, conducted ourselves," Sims said.
Things have changed in a city where, not long ago, commissioners dined together before meetings as a way of building camaraderie at public expense.
That practice, since halted, became an election issue and helped political newcomers Lisa Mallozzi and Sims oust two incumbents.
The tenor of the commission meetings quickly transformed, with debate over issues becoming more combative. And with another city election in January, some expect it will get worse.
"I have never experienced such disrespect and poor decorum," said City Manager Christopher Farrell, who has been city manager in Cooper City for 28 years. "Some people are using government as a forum to unleash hostility."
Now some residents are concerned the heated exchanges are hurting Cooper City's image. Others say they're concerned the discord is taking the focus off larger issues, such as looming cuts in services because of state-mandated tax relief.
At a recent meeting, Donna King, who sits on the city's education advisory board, urged officials to put their differences aside.
"I hope you can work together as a cohesive group because there are a lot of things coming up," she said. "We can get things done in Cooper City if we move forward in a manner that would please everyone."
Ann Culotta, who has lived in the city for 40 years, said there are a lot of positive things happening, but a few detractors are getting most of the attention. "You always have a few," she said, "but they don't have the majority."
City leaders acknowledge the tone of meetings has changed.
Farrell, who rarely comments at meetings, jumped into the fray in mid-July after activist Wilson accused him and Eisinger of politicizing an issue related to an informal proposal to develop Cooper Colony Golf Course into single family homes.
Farrell and Eisinger said after hearing that a developer was going door to door they quickly informed residents and the developer that the land is deeded open space and the city intends to keep it that way.
But Wilson said Farrell and Eisinger had other motives for responding the way they did.
"Our mayor and city manager are attempting to make the golf course a political issue. It is not," Wilson said at the meeting.
Farrell disagreed with a passionate rebuttal. When she stood up during his comments, he asked the audience if Wilson's behavior was ladylike.
Within days, Wilson wrote Gov. Charlie Crist's office, saying, "I don't feel I deserve to be yelled at by a city employee."
Rex Newman, a citizens officer with the governor's office, responded in writing, saying he was sorry to learn about her unhappiness with the commission's actions.
"Those dissatisfied with a local official's performance can always make their views known directly to those officials, or they can do so when they vote," Newman wrote.
On Aug.21, Wilson demanded that Farrell apologize. The apology never came.
Still, Wilson vowed to continue to express her opinion and keep residents abreast of community issues.
"I will not have my First Amendment rights violated," she said.