Coconut Creek Mayor Marilyn Gerber told me today that she thinks her city's $60,000 payment to Coconut Creek Life to subsidize her column and other city content is one of the few ways to inform voters what is going on in their city.
"The major complaint we always get, always, always, is that people don't know what's going on," said Gerber, whose column has resulted in a complaint to the Florida attorney general. "There's a lack of communication. We try really hard to communicate with our residents, and we try whatever means we have. I have gotten very positive comments about the magazine. How much newspaper coverage is there in Coconut Creek? Not that I'm anxious to have the New Times cover us, but the newspaper business is falling apart right now."
Gerber says that because there is so little coverage in her city, the magazine and the city's Comcast cable TV station are just about all that a lot of the city's 50,000 residents have left. Despite the apparent dearth of local government information, the city chooses not to televise its commission meetings, and Mayor Gerber opposes doing so.
"We do not televise our city hall meetings," she said. "I think it makes a lot of the commission meeting irrelevant when people just want to get
Maybe, but it also keeps the City Commission working largely outside of the public eye. I told Gerber that it seems the city doesn't want the people to see the sausage getting made, as it were, and some people might think she only wants Coconut Creek to release tidy little bits of pre-packaged information to the public.
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"People will say whatever they want to say," she said.
Gerber said she didn't know that a city activist had filed a complaint against her for latest column in Coconut Creek Life. James Freeman, a member of the nonprofit Concerned Citizens of Coconut Creek, alleges that Gerber violated SB 216, a new state law that forbids governments or elected officials from spending taxpayer money to advocate for or against a political issue. In the column, Gerber clearly argues against the passage of Amendment 4, which would give voters the right to approve or deny any changes to comprehensive land-use plans. The column, which begins with the line "Don't vote!!!", offers numerous arguments against the amendment, which Gerber strongly opposes.
"Honestly I think people need to know what they are voting on, and since this was well before election time, this was a good time to do that," she said. "I thought I was being very careful."
If state investigators find that Gerber violated the law, she could be charged with a misdemeanor and be fined civilly as much as $1,000. If nothing else, this should be an interesting test case for the law, which was steadfastly opposed by municipal employees but passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Crist in June.