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For two decades, Lee Feldman has been a city manager all around the Florida coast. Currently he is the big cheese in Fort Lauderdale, which has its share of commission meeting drama. We talked about Florida’s causal meeting attire and what council members may really be doing when they’re not looking at public commenters.
Q: You are the city manager of Fort Lauderdale. So, sir, my first question is: how many wet t-shirt contests have you judged?
A: None. Actually, Spring Break–as you may think of–has long gone from Fort Lauderdale. Back in the ’80s, the city fathers felt that Spring Break had gotten a little out of control. They wanted to see the beach evolve to something different, so Spring Break ultimately moved away.
Q: Can you think of anything you’ve done as Fort Lauderdale’s city manager that you think no other city manager in the country might have done?
A: Well, I’ll tell you one. In Florida when you have a quasi-judicial item, you have to be sworn in to give testimony. Our previous process gave you an orange sticker to indicate you were sworn in. I encouraged the clerk to replace that sticker with a sticker that says “I Love Fort Lauderdale.” I’m not sure anybody else in the country has done that.
Q: [Laughs] Yeah, I wouldn’t expect Reno to have stickers that say “I Love Fort Lauderdale!” I noticed in your city commission meetings that some public commenters wear t-shirts, shorts, and baseball caps. Do you find that a little too casual?
A: Over the last 30 years, I’ve seen a general relaxation of meetings. You’ve probably seen some council members that wear t-shirts and ball caps and shorts–
Q: Not yet!
A: You’ll probably find a few, especially in the retirement-oriented communities.
Q: When you were in Palm Bay, there was a contentious city council meeting over the city’s contract with firefighters. Some of them stood up and said, you don’t care about us. Or, cut your pay. What do you want to say to them?
A: We value the work and effort of every employee. Everybody contributes differently. I remember around that time, these anonymous blogs started showing up and somebody blogged that I had gotten a huge raise, which was not the truth. I got a call from my mom–she was yelling at me about “how dare you take a raise when you’re telling others that they need to have changes?”
Q: Some people express concern in public comment that the Fort Lauderdale commissioners aren’t listening to people. I’ve got to say, from watching a few meetings, that seems largely correct.
A: I think our commissioners get a bad rap…we have electronic agendas now. All of our commissioners and myself use our iPads. As people are speaking and referencing things, we will be looking down at the iPad to see what they are talking about.
Q: How can public commenters get your attention and most effectively make their case?
A: The best way to make a case is to know the issue, be able to state the facts, and it’s okay to even get emotional. I’ve seen speakers tear up because the item means so much to them. But the most effective way is to remain civil.
Follow Lee Feldman on Twitter: @leefeldman