Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"Dear Friends, Family, and Supporters"

Thus began an e-mail sent by our one of our elected officials  - the city's titular head, the Mayor.  By any definition, our Mayor is a public official and the e-mail talked about his role as that public official.  In addition, the e-mail was entitled "An Announcement."

We live in Florida where elected officials are governed by the Sunshine and Open Records Laws.  A Public Record is defined as follows:

The Florida Supreme Court has determined that public records are all materials made or received by an agency in connection with official business which are used to perpetuate, communicate or formalize knowledge. They are not limited to traditional written documents. Tapes, photographs, films and sound recordings are also considered public records subject to inspection unless a statutory exemption exists.

In Lake Worth, we have a sphere of voting residents that ranges between 8,000 in Presidential election years, 6,000 in mid term elections and around 3,000+ during municipal only election years.  These are the people that vote to choose our local government's representatives.  When Mayor Varela was elected in 2009, he won in a run-off election and gathered 1,629  votes.  I placed one of those votes for the Mayor and actively campaigned for him - as such, I would think that I would be termed a "supporter."  Of those registered voters that vote in City of Lake Worth elections, I imagine that there are about 300 people that are active participants at one time or another in monitoring, expressing their opinions and engaging themselves in the act of representative Democracy as it relates to our local government.  In essence, when you boil it down, we are very much a "small town."

On Monday, our Mayor, sent out an e-mail addressed to "Friends, Family, and Supporters."  I'm not sure of the size of the group that received the initial e-mail, but the message included information that he would not be running for a second term.  Once someone hits "send", the e-mail sender loses control of who sees and what happens to that e-mail.  You cannot "un-ring" the bell.  In the state of Florida, in my opinion, that also qualifies as a Public Record, if you happen to be an elected or appointed official.

When I sat on the CRA, the CRA attorney advised members of the board that any communication from them that involved business related to the role being of an appointed member of that board was a Public Record.  He advised members of the board to always communicate with the official e-mail address issued by the city.  This would make the consolidation of Public Records request easier.  If we used another e-mail account other than the one issued by the city, we became custodians of the Public Record and would have to produce those communications if asked.  Even if an elected official uses a separate e-mail account from the "official" account, it is still a public record and subject to the Open Records law.

Now, as a "supporter" of Mayor Varela, Rene should understand that "An announcement" that includes information about whether or not he will be seeking a  second term would be of interest to a large portion of the politically engaged population in the City of Lake Worth.  It would not stay "secret" very long in our small town environment that we hold dear and, in many ways, is why we choose to live here in the first place.  Had the Mayor, knowing that I have maintained a "blog" on the goings-on of Lake Worth politics for four years, contacted me - which is relatively easy to do - and said to me, "Wes, I am not going to run for a second term, will be sending out an e-mail and wish that you wouldn't publish it."  I would have honored that request - even if technically it was a public record.  But that would do little to squelch the public's desire to know or, in fact, find out eventually what the plans were.

The reason for the foregoing is that Mayor Varela expressed during the meeting last night that he had an issue with the "blogs" in town publishing and talking about his decision to not seek a second term.  Not only does this show ignorance of the Public Records law, in my opinion, it assumes that somehow this "secret" could stay that way in our small town environment and energetic political sphere.  This attitude also segregates those that voted for Mayor Varela in ways that only Rene could understand.  For whatever reason, I didn't fall into the category of friend, family or supporter - even though I thought that I fit in the first and third category.  I am sorry for making that assumption Mr. Mayor.

In reality, Mayor Varela has carried on the weak leadership at the Mayoral level in Lake Worth that has become a tradition in Lake Worth for at least the last three terms.  It seems to be something about the chair that the Mayor sits in that makes them lose their spine once they get into office.  A spine is a terrible thing to lose.  There is more to being a Mayor than playing the role, sitting in the middle chair and running the meetings.  It is widely acknowledged that, before leaving the Commission, Commissioner Jennings acted as de facto Mayor during the time our current Mayor has been on the dais.  Let's hope that our next Mayor doesn't suffer from spinal atrophy once elected - the city can't survive if that happens again.

To compare the publishing of his "Announcement" to Wiki-leaks (a little self-importance here?) shows ignorance of the Public Records law, under-appreciation of the passionate of the heated, small town political environment we find ourselves in and confirms that our current Mayor is uncomfortable standing by his decisions.  Blaming an organ that helped make residents more informed is wrong.  The decision to not run for a second term was his own and the same goes for the decision to send the e-mail in the first place.  The timing, whether to announce this now or later, was his and his wife's - one presumes.  A dynamic Mayor, a leader with a spine, would understand the role of "blogs" in our 24/7 news environment and their role in dispensing information that would enable responsible and capable leadership - making their job easier.  That Mayor would know how to use these tools to get the message out and lead us out of our problems. This Mayor doesn't understand this or doesn't want to understand.

I wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors - and what remains of his role with the city.