Pinellas County moves work sessions to Clerk’s conference room

Barry Burton, Pinellas County Administrator

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners are no longer having agenda briefings one-on-one with the county administrator. As of March 7, those briefings have been combined with work session meetings.

Work sessions also have been moved from the fifth floor Assembly Room to the Clerk’s fourth floor conference room in the Clearwater Courthouse, 315 Court St.

Work sessions will not be televised or streamed live as they have been in the past.

County Administrator Barry Burton, who started work Oct. 29, 2018, replacing long-time county employee and administrator Mark Woodard, is responsible for the change in format.

Commission Chair Karen Seel’s executive aide, Cyndi Simmons, responded to an email from Tampa Bay Newspapers questioning the latest meeting schedule that showed work sessions had been moved to a meeting place that before had not had the capability of being televised and were not video recorded.

Simmons replied that agenda briefings were previously held with each commissioner separately.

“So going over the same items seven times. And the county attorney was also in those meetings. So it was thought to save time for all of them. No decisions are made at the agenda briefings. It’s just doing it all at once instead of separately,” she wrote.

The email did not address the work sessions. It did include a thank you for questioning why they are not televised and the matter was referred to the county administrator.

In a phone call the morning of March 4 with Burton, he said he had noticed that no real discussion occurred at work sessions. He said the sessions typically consisted of staff making presentations. He pointed out that no voting took place.

However, looking back at past meetings, commissioners have directed staff to take action in a particular direction by majority consensus, and they have to come to consensus on other matters.

Burton said work sessions would still be public meetings and minutes would be available albeit several weeks later. Before the change, meetings were available in real time and videos were usually available within days.

When questioned about plans for the meetings to be televised in the future and the lack of a video record, he suggested that maybe a stationary camera could be set up to record the meeting and those videos could be made available. He did not seem amenable to live broadcasts.

He said staff had indicated that not many people watched work session meetings with most that tuned in dropping off within two-three minutes. He said in his experience, the public did not watch two-hour work session meetings, which would be a short meeting for Pinellas commissioners.

Burton advocates for a different style of meeting — one that takes place around a conference table where discussions between commissioners and staff could take place. He said the format worked well at Lake County Illinois where he served as county administrator for 17 years.

He said with the new format, meetings could be better with more incentive for discussion.

He also said short videos of the meetings could be produced on different topics, such as land assembly or transportation, as then pushed out to social media, which would reach a larger audience. He said the public seems more inclined to watch shorter presentations.

When asked if producing those videos posed a danger of only making available what the county wanted the public to hear, he said the complete video would be available; however, as of the phone call the morning of March 4, he was unable to share how that would happen.

Latest word is that videos of the meetings will not be available. Instead, audio recordings will be posted a couple of days later.

Burton championed his new format, saying it would lead to more “interactive sessions” that would be more effective in a conference room with everyone at the table instead of the commissioners up on a dais and staff speaking from the podium on the floor.

The audio recording from the March 7 meeting was posted March 8. Burton can be heard explaining that they were trying a trial setup.

“We’ve looked at space, and you either have really big space or space about this size (a typical conference room),” he said. “And we kind of know it is an issue because we don’t have a lot.”

He said he had talked to Seel and determined an alternative location could be needed when meetings covered topics that would draw public attention.

He asked for feedback, individually or a discussion as a whole, on the new setup.

“However, we can adjust from that basically depending on how it goes and how it feels,” he said.

Pinellas commissioners typically meet twice a month in regular session, one morning meeting and one that starts in the afternoon and continues at 6 p.m. They typically hold at least one work session each month. They also hold two or more budget information sessions starting in May and as needed until the budget is approved in late September.

View the commission schedule, agendas and videos at https://pinellas.legistar.com/Calendar.aspx.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.