|[The Report] A House Divided Against Itself Susan Nilon, S[email protected]
The Sarasota City Commission is about to set a precedent that will change the integrity of our local government. On March 3, during a regular city commission meeting, citizens and a former mayor testified in support of the City continuing to pay the legal fees of a lawsuit against one sitting commissioner. Impassioned testimony, based on principle and emotion, they stood behind the notion that no commissioner should go at it alone when fighting a lawsuit that resulted from an activity associated with the job.For the past year, this Sunshine lawsuit has been played out in the press as if it was a chapter from the pages of “Peyton Place.” Its pure merit has been surmised on the popularity of the single commissioner against the amount of money that is being spent on her defense. Twisted into this plot are conspiracies, insinuations of impropriety, and two distinct groups of supporters and detractors. Jaded are the gossipy tales of division told by the characters played out before us. Arguments are rarely based on merit, but opinions of peripheral facts and fallacies. Does the lawsuit have merit when one of the litigants has a criminal past? How can there not be bias in the commission when one commissioner is leaving office before the end of his term and another commissioner settled an identical lawsuit for a nominal fee? The only people in this play that appear to be focused on actual virtues of this lawsuit are the City attorney and the legal defense team.
One should ask why this lawsuit is so important to the people of this great city.
Our form of government is not made up of individuals, but a unified body that governs the city. The moment the oath is taken, the commissioner is no longer a singular philosophy, but a part of a collective voice that governs us all. And when a civil lawsuit is brought before the commission, all commissioners, by the commands of the office, are held responsible. When one commissioner acts individually, they are no longer keeping the oath of office and essentially breaking the trust of the people to fulfill their duties as an elected official.
Where this lawsuit of Sunshine lost it merit and became egregious is when it sued two commissioners and made them personally liable. It immediately divided the commission and challenged the integrity of the group. Already frayed by petty disputes and still raw wounds of a recent election, they separated like kids in a schoolyard picking players in a game of dodge ball. The Sunshine Law is to protect the citizens from rogue officials that use the office for personal gain. Cloaked in a cape of nobility, it is used not as a protector of the people, but a weapon of power. Do we gain anything from these procedures? Have we gone too far and bound the hands of our commissioners, taken off the blindfold of justice, and displayed a single commissioner out for the people to judge? Who are we as a people who allow our personal prejudices to cloud our judgments and call for the head of a civil servant?
Does anyone not see this path of destruction that will lead us certainly to a place that any sane person would question ever running for office?
It is accurate to quote Alexis de Tocqueville: “In a Democracy, we get the government we deserve.”