St. Pete’s Nuisance Abatement Board will not hear public comment during quasi-judicial hearings despite public outcry to do so.
Following a series of legislative decisions exempting quasi-judicial hearings from a public comment requirement, the board changed its rules to eliminate opportunity for individuals to address the board in such hearings.
Prior to a hearing last week involving the New Plaza Motel and Cactus Charlie’s bar on 34 Street, numerous residents – most from the Historic Kenwood neighborhood that backs up to the property – emailed City Council member Amy Foster and other officials within the city crying out for a chance to be heard.
Because of the board’s rules, they were not allowed to give public comment before, after or during the case unless they were called as an official witness.
Despite pleas from the public, City Council member Foster and former City Council member Jeff Danner, the board rejected a move Wednesday to allow people to give testimony – they would be under oath – after the board had already made a ruling on a case, but before they determined the consequences associated with the decision.
The motion made by former board Chair John Siebert failed. Instead the board passed a motion by attorney Sean McQuaid to “keep the status quo” and only allow the public to provide testimony if they are called as a witness.
To council member Foster, who has made nuisance abatement one of her top priorities, the decision was neither a win nor a loss.
“I still believe that the neighborhood leaders have provided important input and feedback on appropriate remedies,” Foster said after the meeting. “I was really disappointed to see that portion of the discussion fail.”
The purpose of not allowing open public comment for these types of hearings, board members argued, was to avoid some potential unintended consequences. That would include the possibility of hearings being appealed.
Members of the public who are testifying as a witness would be cross examined by either side and their comments could be objected to on the grounds of it being hearsay. That is not the case with broader public comment.
But the motion dealt with allowing public comment after a decision had already been made, so Foster questions whether it is appropriate to maintain that same level of caution.
“If they’ve already been found to be a nuisance, than why would we not allow public comment on a remedy,” she asked.
The issue was likened to victims who are able to give victim impact statements after a suspect has been found guilty. That testimony is taken into consideration for purposes of sentencing.
Instead, board members argued there has always been a way for people who want to be heard to offer their testimony as a witness. But Foster said that hasn’t been regularly done.
In anticipation of such a move, Foster reached out to St. Pete Police Chief Anthony Holloway, who she said told her he will be making sure neighbors who have witnessed properties accused of being a nuisance are included on witness lists instead of just police officers and detectives.
“That is going to be part of the process for sure,” Foster said.
The board will meet again next month to continue the case on New Plaza and Cactus Charlie’s. The hearing was extended after the board’s last meeting after hours of testimony back and forth between the city’s attorney and the defense for the hotel.
The defense repeatedly asked to engage witnesses further even after his questioning had been exhausted. The result was a torturously long meeting and it prompted board members to explore limiting testimony to a cross-examination and a re-direct – the same way a criminal case is tried by attorneys.
Staff members are expected to bring a plan back in writing at the next meeting.