Above: Hear a version of this story that aired on 89.1 WUFT-FM.
During recent meetings, Gainesville city commissioners faced criticism for their practice of using city funds to buy catered meals provided between commission meetings.
Frequent commission meeting attendees like Nathan Skop have continued to bring up the expense during public comment sessions, largely as a wedge issue as the city’s budget planning begins this spring.
“Instead of being prudent stewards of taxpayer money,” he said, “you guys won’t even give up your catered meals at taxpayer expense.”
City commissioners are making clear they have tired of this line of criticism, even as invoices show they have spent more to date in 2019 on the meals than in the first quarter of past calendar years.
When commissioners take their dinner break between the afternoon and evening sessions, they have the option to dine on catered meals. A typical meal consists of a hot dinner buffet with items like grilled chicken breast and mango salsa, Hawaiian rice, grilled squash, and sweet or unsweetened tea.
Gainesville city commissioners spent approximately $2,400 on catered meals so far in 2019, according to invoices obtained by a public record request. In the past three years, they’ve spent about $3,000 each year on the meals, putting them on track this year to exceed previous spending.
It’s a minuscule part of the city’s $91 million general government budget for the current fiscal year, but critics of the practice say it’s about the optics.
The city is looking at a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall. That — coupled with possible rate increases for Gainesville Regional Utilities customers — gets ratepayers like Debbie Martinez upset that catered meals are continuing.
“We’re in a financial crisis,” she said. “We have people living in molded homes because they can no longer afford to turn their air conditioners on.”
The commission also provided meals for a pair of recent community events on affordable housing and economic development.
Where this is common and uncommon
It’s not unusual for city commissions in similarly-sized Florida cities to purchase catered meals using taxpayer money.
Hollywood city commission is provided lunch the first Wednesday of every month and when morning workshops are scheduled, according to Joann Hussey, Hollywood city spokeswoman. The City of Hollywood spends roughly $950 a year on meals that typically consist of sandwiches and a bag of chips or a hot entree and some sort of dessert item.
Clearwater’s city council has catered meals that cost between $100 and $200 for 10 to 11 people prior to each council meeting, according to Jim Halios, assistant to the city manager. Meals are ordered from local restaurants and consist of a main dish and a salad with dressing, served family style.
Tallahassee serves food at its city commission meetings that take place during the dinner hour, and anyone in attendance can eat what’s served, said Alison Faris, director of communications for the City of Tallahassee.
The Alachua County Commission does not purchase meals for its meetings using taxpayer dollars, nor does any other Alachua County municipality’s governing body, though those cities are much smaller in population than Gainesville. Ocala City Council has meals delivered for only lunchtime workshop meetings, with the cost to taxpayers at less than $1,000 a year, according to city spokeswoman Katie Hunnicutt.
What is the purpose of the catered meals?
Convenience, said former Gainesville city commissioner Thomas Hawkins.
“We had one commissioner that lived almost in the city of Alachua,” he said. “That can be almost a 20-minute drive depending on the time of day and traffic, which doesn’t provide an opportunity to get food.”
Paula Delaney, who served on the city commission from 1992 to 1998 and as mayor from 1998 to 2001, said the practice has been going on for decades.
The meals are set up in a common area of City Hall designated for commissioners between afternoon and evening meeting sessions. City officials don’t normally allow members of the public or media into the area, and because elected officials in Florida are prohibited from talking about public business outside public meetings, it raises a question about whether the gathering of commissioners could violate Florida’s Sunshine Law.
City spokesman Chip Skinner wrote in an email that commissioners have been trained on the Sunshine Law and are trusted to follow rules about discussion of public business.
Delaney said commissioners during her tenure never spoke of public business while eating between meetings.
“You found out a lot about each other,” she said. “You kept up with each other’s children, where you are going on vacation. It just really — I think — made us have a much more personal relationship.”
Their reactions and their budget
Commissioners in a March 21 meeting took aim at Skop, Martinez and others who have questioned why taxpayers pay for their catered meals.
“Sometimes the boundaries between our public lives and our private lives get blurred,” Commissioner Gail Johnson said, expressing her frustration with the criticism at the end of a public comment session. “I get that. We were elected, we understand that was part of what we signed up for, but there are boundaries… What I don’t appreciate is when I have to come out of my office and answer what I ate for dinner. Really?”
Johnson told the public that she has always been transparent and encourages it because she feels it’s important for the city commission to hear what the public has to say.
Only one of the seven current city commissioners responded to WUFT’s request for an additional opportunity to explain the meal expense. Commissioner Helen Warren said cutting this instance of biweekly spending wouldn’t reduce the rising utility rates that Debbie Martinez and others criticize.
“We are doing a lot to try to take every edge out of what impacts the utility bills,” she said.
The city’s fiscal year begins Oct. 1, and commissioners are now discussing the 2019-20 budget.
At its Feb. 28 workshop with the Utility Advisory Board, commissioners discussed options for solving a GRU budget shortfall of as much as $13 million over the next six years. GRU during the current and next two fiscal years is expected to transfer $38.3 million to help fund government services.
Still, GRU has less money available to transfer than in past years, so without a cut in city spending, the utility’s management could ask commissioners to raise customers’ rates to help fill the gap.
Following Johnson’s comments, Commissioner Harvey Ward said he had been in a hurry between that day’s meetings and opted against eating the catered meal in favor of a Nutri-Grain snack bar.
“I understand exactly what the question is and what the political theater concern is there,” Ward said. “Sometimes several of us eat, and sometimes we don’t get a chance to. Frankly, I’m not ashamed of that… I don’t think it’s a shame we occasionally get a meal, as well.”