It started with Mayor Pam Triolo’s baked ziti. Then Commissioner Andy Amoroso brought in his homemade meatloaf.
Before long, a tradition was born. Before each marathon meeting of the Lake Worth City Commission, the participants would bring some food to share. They’d grab a bite and gab — presumably about something safely unrelated to city business, like the weather or a TV show or how kids are doing.
The food, and the fellowship, were badly needed, says City Manager Michael Bornstein. Commission meetings routinely dragged toward midnight and beyond, and people on the panel had already put in long days at work. Tempers frayed when folks hadn’t had dinner. And there was plenty to grapple with in a city “with serious dysfunction and financial issues.”
Lake Worth had lost its ability “to pull itself together and work as a community,” Bornstein told The Post Editorial Board. Civility was in short supply.
The pre-meeting meals were meant to leaven the sullen atmosphere. But in always-combative Lake Worth, even these have become the stuff of conflict.
That’s because the food is spread out in a conference room next to Bornstein’s office, in a section of City Hall that is behind locked doors for security purposes. To critics, the gathering of city officials, unannounced and out of the public eye, smacks of a violation of Florida’s Sunshine Laws.
In the election season just past, challengers repeatedly made the charge that there’s too little transparency at City Hall, and that those meals are a juicy example of it.
One of those critics, former Commissioner Cara Jennings — who gained unexpected fame this week for a viral video in which she is seen yelling insults at Gov. Rick Scott at a Gainesville Starbucks — says she stumbled upon one of these meals when she stopped by Bornstein’s office in the late afternoon of Feb. 9 to discuss an evening agenda item. Commissioner Christopher McVoy, whom she met in the hallway, swiped her through the locked door.
“When we approached the manager’s door, I could see through the window that he was there and that Commissioner Amoroso and Mayor Triolo were also in the room,” Jennings wrote in an email to The Post. “Upon [my] entering the room Amoroso left abruptly. I immediately felt uncomfortable, as if I had busted in on something.”
Sounds suspicious. But Triolo and Bornstein, in separate interviews, insisted that nothing was said then, or at any of the chow sessions, that involved public business. It’s perfectly legal, under the Sunshine Law, for officials to meet in private and discuss non-public matters.
The trouble is, without being able to witness these meal meetings for ourselves, the public has only the officials’ word that their conduct is kosher.
“The intent of the law is trying to improve voters’ confidence in elected officials,” says McVoy, a commissioner who no longer meets and eats because he’s concerned about the appearance of impropriety.
We don’t doubt Bornstein and Triolo when they say that nothing untoward is occurring over the ziti and meatloaf. But with suspicions so rampant over alleged closed-door dealings, the commission would be wise to find a spot for the pre-meeting spread that doesn’t shut the public out.