“There is not a single group using these public spaces that has got the same deal as another,” said Mayor Sam Henderson. “It is widely varied.”
As one example, he noted that while leasing charges have stayed the same for years, costs the city must charge to residents regarding utilities like water and garbage have been steadily increasing.
According to City Manager Jim O’Reilly, the following four organizations lease building or office space for $1 per year: Boca Ciega Yacht Club; Gulfport Historical Society; the City of Imagination art group; and the Senior Center Foundation.
The Community Garden operates on a parcel of land and is considered a quasi-recreational program so there is currently no lease charge, said O’Reilly. The Coast Guard Auxiliary shares space with the city’s maintenance staff, so there is no charge and facilities fees are waived for the Gulfport Little League.
Because they charge for dry storage of sailing vessels, the Gulfport Yacht Club currently leases public space near the municipal marina for $19,500 per year, said O’Reilly. The Gulfport Lion’s Club lease agreement is unique because they own the building but the city owns the land beneath it.
In addition to what Henderson calls “sweetheart rental deals on public property,” the flow of communication between organizations and the city has also become a key issue.
As part of the meeting’s agenda item labeled “8.a” on the subject of “facility use policy,” the mayor proposed that the council discuss “a policy that provides the city council the ability to appoint a member/representative” to the executive board of directors of each organization.
Henderson said having a person on each board was one solution that may improve communication.
“It’s just an idea. Not a majority. Not a take-over,” he said. “We haven’t always had really clear communication. It’s been inconsistent, overall.”
His suggestion in the council agenda packet for the August 6 meeting regarding possible city representation on organization boards contributed to a flurry of public discourse on the topic.
“I’ve spoken with a lot of people in the past couple of weeks and there’s been some misrepresentation through social media and other outlets about what this is,” said Henderson. “We are not looking to evict anyone specifically right now. I heard that several times.”
Henderson said, “The behaviors and the events that are done by these organizations reflect back on us. So, when there’s a lack of communication, when there’s an impact to the community, when there is an impact to time and city resources, those things come back to us.
“As stewards of the people on this property that belongs to us, we also have accountability.”
Henderson said that one of his main concerns is that “when someone causes a problem for residents or causes a problem that burns up city resources, and we have to get involved, I’m really not feeling like the city should be in the business of providing a really great [lease] deal when people are going to cause a problem when they’re getting it.”
In speaking order based on meeting protocols, councilmembers detailed their positions.
“I’d like to offer the idea that we tighten up the leases and see if we can make a policy that is good for everybody,” said Councilmember Christine Brown.
Councilmember Paul Ray agreed with Brown regarding the notion of a standardized lease then asked, “What is the expected gain of putting somebody on a board?”
Henderson replied, “Because communication has been so inconsistent.” Having a person representing the city on each lessee board means “we’re guaranteed to get communication back on what’s going on. A lot of times, we don’t hear about things [unless] we get made aware of it by a resident who is unhappy.”
Ray said, “It seems to me we’re going to spank all [the] kids because of one or two that have acted up. And, I find that disheartening and disingenuous from us. I’m completely opposed to the idea” of having a city representative on organization boards that are leasing public facilities.
In addition, Ray addressed that organizations in lease agreements with the city should follow “expected standards of conduct to include reporting financial information on a quarterly or yearly basis.”
Both Ray and Councilmember Fridovich expressed concern that if council members or their representatives were assigned to the boards of organizations that the groups may be considered political and subsequently could be subject to the Florida Sunshine Law.
According to the Florida Office of Attorney General’s website, the “Government-in-the-Sunshine” Law, which is covered by Chapter 286 of the Florida State Statutes, establishes “a basic right of access to most meetings of boards, commissions and other governing bodies of state and local governmental agencies or authorities.”
Fridovich said he also agreed with Brown regarding having one comprehensive lease for all groups.
Let the “city manager and staff come back with some recommendations,” said Fridovich.
“We have a hard enough time filling the existing boards that we have now,” said Councilmember Dan Liedtke. “I don’t know how we would handle” more positions.
Liedtke said that whatever the requirements are, they should all be in the lease.
“We don’t really need to be in the daily stuff,” said Liedtke.
During the public comment portion of the meeting regarding ideas for the facility use policy, numerous people spoke for a total of about 30 minutes. Some were members of the nine organizations that would be affected by any change in lease policy.
At one point, a total of 67 people were in the audience including seven who were standing in the back of the room.
Ultimately, council unanimously agreed to direct city staff to draft a new universal lease policy for organizations that wish to lease public facilities. The new policy would address several topics including rental rates; length of lease; and a consistent workflow of communication from each organization to the city that would include regular financial statements and notice of any conflicts with people associating with a lessee group.