Cone of Silence
May 22, 2009, 12:40 AM
Filed under: City Commission


May 22, 2009

Although several members of the current city commission campaigned on the theme that it was time for a change, four of the current commissioners consistently vote against change when it comes to lobbyists. Commissioners Asseff, Furr, Sherwood, and Russo have the majority to rule the roost more often than not. Principled ethical positions put forward by Commissioners O’Sheehan and Blattner, along with Mayor Bober, can be overruled by this group of old-style commissioners.

The most recent case occurred on May 20 when the commission voted unanimously to begin a two-stage process for determining how to develop the casino property at Johnson Street on the Broadwalk. The ethical challenge arose when the city attorney asked the commission at what point in this process should a cone of silence be imposed.

The minority of three (Blattner, Bober, and O’Sheehan) pushed for imposing the cone of silence immediately, but the others said they wanted the opportunity to be lobbied by developers. They seemed to feel that if they could not talk with developers and lobbyists, they would be deprived of necessary information. This argument that elected officials need to receive information in private from lobbyists was espoused most strongly by former Mayor Giulianti. It was the standard operating procedure during her 20-year reign. While it is not a forgone conclusion now, Commissioners Asseff, Furr, Sherwood, and Russo manage to perpetuate the old ways by votes such as this one.

Commissioner Furr said he welcomes a clash of ideas which would be curtailed if he could not meet with lobbyists and developers.

Commissioner Asseff said that as a real estate agent she wants free rein to explore possibilities for development of the Johnson Street property. Doesn’t this blur the line between elected official and realtor?

Commissioner Sherwood said she likes to hear from developers with projects under city consideration. She likes having the ability to influence them. For example, she said she can tell a developer that she will not vote for a project unless some feature she finds objectionable is changed.

Commissioner Russo said that those commissioners who want an immediate cone of silence can decide not to meet with lobbyists, while those such as herself who want lobbyist contact can continue to have it.

And this position prevailed, with Commissioner Blattner saying he would impose his own cone of silence. The decision was made to begin a cone of silence for all commissioners at a later date, when they approve the wording of a request for letters of interest from developers, perhaps a month or two from now. Meanwhile, the lobbyists are free to roam the halls and the commissioners are free to seek them out.

The problem here is that these elected officials are claiming the right to meet in private with lobbyists whose job it is to curry favor for their project and to get inside information about what type of development can get majority commission approval. There is no record of such meetings and what may or may not be promised or suggested, because they occur behind closed doors. The result is contrary to the public interest in at least two respects:

Lobbying DOES NOT insure a more educated decision, as these commissioners seem to think.  In fact, it often only perpetuates mis-information since facts given to them by “trusted” lobbyists are not always checked for their accuracy.

When those officials, who are responsible for selecting a development project, meet with lobbyists behind closed doors, they are not accountable to the public they were elected to represent.

The Balance Sheet applauds Commissioners Blattner and O’Sheehan, and Mayor Bober, for recognizing how the public perceives these private meetings with lobbyists and how they can skew the selection process.

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