NEW FACES — New and returning members of the Volusia County Council take their seat on the dais Jan. 5. From left are Volusia County Council Members Jake Johansson, Danny Robins, Matt Reinhart, County Chair Jeff Brower and County Council Members Troy Kent and Don Dempsey. Not pictured is County Council Member David Santiago who was absent from the Jan. 5 meeting and not yet sworn in.

As they begin a new year and new terms in office, the freshmen of the Volusia County Council are already shaking things up — beginning with a call to convene half of their regular meetings in the late afternoons and evenings, as well as throwing a bone to dog-lovers.

The decision to meet at a later time for the second meeting of each month is based on making it more convenient for working citizens to come and see their government in action and to speak to their leaders.

“I have to admit I have a newfound respect for anyone who runs [for elected office],” District 2 Council Member Matt Reinhart said, noting he had “stepped out of [his] comfort zone” to enter the political arena.

After they took their oaths to do their solemn duties, new members of the council Jan. 5 seemed a bit awkward in their first day at work — but they were not abashed about challenging the established ways of doing things. And that included questioning County Chair Jeff Brower’s ways of presiding over meetings.

Traditionally, the first meeting of a newly reconstituted County Council is a time for speeches of gratitude, along with renewed vows to serve the people and do what is best for them. While there were pleasantries for the public and their colleagues, the new council voiced a commitment to keep campaign promises — immediately.

“We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there,” District 4 Council Member Troy Kent told his peers and the audience, taking a line from a Jerry Reed country song of yesteryear. “That’s me.”

He alluded to the condition of the shoreline, where damage and unsafe conditions caused by hurricanes Ian and Nicole are still evident.

“I want that beach open again for you — and I’m passionate about it,” Kent added.

At-Large Council Member Jake Johansson spoke of implementing the “four c’s” he had talked about in his campaign: “Cooperation, collaboration, communication and common sense.”

“This job is not a one-man show; it’s a team effort,” he said.

Johansson called upon his peers to pay more attention to the people who come to meetings to follow or to address items about which they are concerned — oftentimes missing work and sitting for hours until their issue is presented and debated.

“I think it’s important that we respect people’s time,” he urged.

That sense of awareness of time-is-of-the-essence for the public surfaced in the discourse that followed.

Returning District 3 Council Member Danny Robins called for more public involvement in their government.

“I, like you, have the right to be silent, but I don’t have the ability,” he said.

Robins’ fellow members chose him to serve as vice chair for 2023. The vice chair presides over council meetings in the absence of the county chair, or if the chair passes the gavel to move an item to a vote or to second a motion. The vice chair also may represent the county government at events the chair may be unable to attend.

Brower told his fellow county representatives that “our chief goal is to keep the God-given constitutional right” to speak freely about issues and concerns.

“I would like for each of us to look inside and ask if we are going to be individuals or a team,” he said. “We need to debate important issues. … I’m asking each of us to be respectful of one another.”

Brower went on to suggest the council schedule “one meeting a month in the evening,” rather than starting each and every regular session at 9:30 a.m.

“I love having more public participation,” Kent said. “My hope is that we can vote on this today. … I’m a no on all 9:30 a.m. meetings. … My preference is all 4 p.m. meetings.

Kent’s suggestion resonated.

“It’s about the public,” Reinhart said. “I would like to be the cost of having extra staff here.”

“The staff is here to serve,” County Manager George Recktenwald told Reinhart and the rest of the council. “You have hourly employees, and that will have to be dealt with.”

“At the end of the day, this is about our residents,” Kent said.

More arguing about the times for meetings — such as 9:30 a.m. on the first Tuesday of each month and 4 p.m. on the third Tuesday of each month — finally ended with agreement to begin the first of the council’s meetings at 10 a.m. and the council’s second meeting of the month at 4 p.m. The effective date for the new and experimental meeting schedule is Feb. 7.

“I appreciate trying the hybrid [schedule],” Johansson said.

“Selfishly, it helps me a lot,” District 1 Council Member Don Dempsey said.

Dempsey is an attorney.

As for concerns the later meeting times will result in prolonged debate and slowdowns in taking action: “A lot of that will depend on us,” Brower said, adding members can “discipline the meetings.”

“If you think I’m doing something in error, call a point of order,” he suggested.

Despite the debate and the decision to revamp the County Council’s meeting routine, Kent wanted more discussion about procedures.

“I’m a little surprised … that this wasn’t an agenda item about how these meetings are run,” he said, including the public-participation segment at the beginning of each meeting.

Brower said the council will review its rules for meetings at its next meeting, set for Jan. 17.

“I think it would be beneficial to know what the rules are,” he added.

Kent challenged Brower’s dialogue with a couple of speakers earlier, along with his not strictly enforcing the three-minute limit on a speaker’s remarks.

“What is our rule?” Kent demanded. “If the rule says three minutes and someone wants to go on, it’s not three minutes. … We had two people today that the buzzer went off, and they kept talking.”

“If we’re going to say that to the public, keep ourselves under the same time constraints,” Dempsey said.

Noting some people who address the council are nervous about public speaking, Dempsey favored giving speakers some latitude “as long as it doesn’t get out of hand.”

“I wholeheartedly disagree with everything you said,” Kent told Dempsey.

“If all seven of us do that, we won’t get any work done,” he continued. “Why do we have rules if we’re not following them?”

Brower defended his discretion in giving some speakers more time to wrap up their comments.

“I don’t want to embarrass,” he said.

The County Council voted 6-0 to put on its Feb. 7 agenda a discussion about its rules and meeting procedures.

While he had the attention of his colleagues and many in the chamber audience and those watching or listening online, Kent called upon the council to revisit the idea of allowing people to bring their dogs onto the beach. Kent acknowledged he favors letting dogs onto the beach, with leashes and other careful measures.

Brower agreed.

“To me, I think that is an important item to discuss,” he told Kent.

The council voted 6-0 to discuss anew on Feb. 21 whether to let people bring their four-legged family members onto certain zones of the beaches.

The Volusia County Council is still not up to its full strength of seven members.

Two months after District 5 Council Member Fred Lowry exited, there remains a void on the dais. District 5 covers Southwest Volusia, chiefly Deltona.

Lowry’s successor, David Santiago, is yet to be sworn into office. Santiago was not present for the Jan. 5 meeting.

The agenda printed in advance of the meeting made no mention of Santiago’s taking the oath of office. County Chair Jeff Brower, when asked about the continuing vacancy, said he did not know where Santiago was.

Lowry had to step down from the County Council in November, after he lost the race against Volusia County School Board Member Ruben Colon. Under Florida’s resign-to-run law, anyone holding an elected office and running for another elected office must resign no later than the effective date of the beginning of the term of the office he/she is seeking. Because the terms of School Board members begin in November, Lowry had to resign in that month, rather than serving the final two months of his term as a council member. Lowry, a former Deltona city commissioner, was elected to the County Council in 2014. He was re-elected in 2018.


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