Cape Coral City Council approved amendments to the decorum and public comment opportunities section of the Council Agenda Rules of Procedure at its Feb. 7 meeting. The changes focus on penalties for residents who are either removed from a meeting or arrested due to violating decorum rules.
The item was last on the consent agenda under Council Agenda Rules of Procedure and was approved with no discussion.
“Dissent from the public is labeled as the enemy,” southwest Cape resident Lisa Cohen said during public input. “Now, we begin a new fight that you have placed on the consent agenda to avoid discussion like cowards. We have the right to address our government with our grievances as outlined in our five parts of the First Amendment.”
The approved changes were initially discussed at the Jan. 17 Committee of the Whole meeting before making its way to a Council agenda. Following behavior the city deemed as a violation of decorum rules, resulting in the removal of one person from a meeting and the arrest of another, Council sought to update its rules of procedure.
“We’re looking to provide a level of clarification in the rules itself and maybe have them be more self-executing,” City Attorney Aleksandr Boksner said.
Residents asked to leave or are escorted out of a meeting because they violated decorum will be barred from attendance at that Council meeting and all subsequent regular and special Council meetings, including Community Redevelopment Agency meetings, for a 30-day period.
A second violation within 90 days of the first offense would then prohibit that person from attending any meetings for a 60-day period. A third violation committed within one year of the first violation would then prohibit that person from attending meetings for a 90-day period.
After the 90-day period, the person would then have to petition Council with their reasons as to why they can attend the meetings without violating rules of procedure, in which it will be left up to Council to decide whether they are permitted back at future meetings.
In the case of an arrest, the person would be barred from attending all meetings until a final disposition of the criminal charges has concluded. Following the disposition, the person must petition Council for permission to attend future meetings.
“I’ve been here six years, and I can count on one hand how many people we’ve asked to leave,” Mayor John Gunter said at the Jan. 17 Committee of the Whole meeting. “Unfortunately, we’ve had that happen twice here in the last 60 days. Hopefully, it won’t happen again, but if it does, I want to make sure we have a policy in place.”
The changes follow an overwhelming amount of public participation and opposition to recent Council actions, beginning with its design approval of changes to Jaycee Park.
Since the inception of the project, many residents voiced opposition with four dozen speaking at a May 3, 2023, meeting when a contract agreement with Pennoni consulting engineering firm for final design services was initially approved.
Since then, residents opposing changes to the park have continued to voice opposition during public input portions of city meetings.
“You say you can’t tell private people how to use their land, but public parks should be left for the people to decide,” Cape Coral resident Sally Flash said during public input at the Feb. 7 meeting.
Public participation at city meetings only increased after Jaycee Park opposition, with Council facing backlash on its decision to dissolve the CRA Board and absorb its responsibilities as commissioners on Nov. 15, 2023.
The motion to dissolve the CRA and absorb its responsibilities was approved in a 5-3 vote, with council members Robert Welsh, Jessica Cosden and Tom Hayden dissenting.
Residents voiced opposition to the dissolution of the CRA, made up of unpaid appointees, after the vote.
On Dec. 13, 2023, Council approved a resolution establishing an annual stipend for the mayor and council members. The resolution states the mayor will receive a monthly stipend of $5,000, and each council member will receive a monthly stipend of $3,333.
The city said the stipend serves the purpose of compensating additional duties that Council voted to take on as commissioners of the CRA. Approval of the item, which was on the consent agenda, moved forward with no discussion in a 6-1 vote, with Welsh dissenting.
Additionally, residents continued to feel unheard and poorly represented by Council when a special election wasn’t held to fill the vacancy for the District 4 seat. Instead, Council voted in former law enforcement officer Richard Carr to fill the seat, previously held by Patty Cummings, who was suspended by Gov. Ron DeSantis through an executive order in November.
Carr was the only council member to deny the stipend before council member Dan Sheppard announced Jan. 10 that he will decline the stipend as well.
“It’s time for accountability, transparency and real leadership,” Cohen said.
The next city meeting is the Committee of the Whole meeting Feb. 14 in the Council Chambers.