News Column

Florida Officials Under Fire for Nasty Language

Jan. 28, 2013

Heather Carney, Sun Sentinel

"Bug off." "Blow me."

That's how some city officials talk to each other -- and to you -- at their meetings.

The dismal state of civil discourse is distracting and detracts from conducting regular city business, say residents and politicians alike.

Conflicts and politics have always gone hand-in-hand, but overall there is "less collegiality in government" today, said Casey Klofstad, political science professor at the University of Miami. Increased communication through technology "lowers the decency filter."

"Nothing is private," said Klofstad. "We find the political conflict that goes on distasteful ... It's always been there, now it's something we see more of with technology."

In Cooper City, the problem is so prevalent one commissioner said some have dubbed it "Cooper Silly."

"In the last eight or nine years, every commission has gotten worse in their behavior," said resident Gladys Wilson. "Every commission has their one or two people who feel they are above behaving themselves up there ... It's distracting from the meeting."

On Nov. 30, Commissioner John Sims posted a Facebook comment that many considered to be racially charged. On Jan. 8, Commissioner Lisa Mallozzi said "blow me" under her breath to Wilson after a heated discussion.

Sims publicly apologized for his comment; Mallozzi did not.

Residents are asking commissioners to consider censoring colleagues. Others are calling for commissioners to resign the next time something nasty slips from their mouth or across their Facebook and Twitter feeds.

"I didn't believe it at first after all the 'water under the bridge' that has occurred and the new commitment to decorum and decency that was made by all," resident Bob Sands wrote in a letter to the commission regarding Mallozzi's comment. "I found it appalling ... I'm not sure that there is a policy on censure for commissioners but if there isn't, perhaps it is time to make that an agenda item due to recent events?"

Wilson, a passionate political activist in Cooper City, said she never received a sincere apology from Mallozzi. Mallozzi did not respond to multiple phone messages requesting comment.

Resident Bonnie Simpkin said her 14-year-old daughter brought the commissions' behavior to her attention.

"That was uncalled for, you could have bit your tongue," said Simpkin regarding Mallozzi's comment.

At the meeting after Mallozzi's outburst, commissioners approved a resolution stating "commission, staff members, citizens and others are required to use civil and appropriate language when addressing the commission or anyone present at the meeting, and must refrain from using profanity, cursing or exhibiting aggressive or threatening behavior."

But Wilson doubts commissioners learned their lesson because "they've gotten away with it for so long."

Recently, residents accused Boynton Beach Commissioner Steven Holzman for using a racial slur -- the N-word -- and disrespectful language when speaking privately with city staff members.

"We don't know if any of it's truthful or not," said Boynton Beach City Manager Lori LaVerriere. She's considering introducing an agreement between commissioners and residents to address respect and decorum. "Something that says 'Folks, let's act like adults, be respectful and treat one another like human beings.'"

In August, Dania Beach's former Mayor Pat Flury told another commissioner and his wife, "I'm not going to resign so I just want to tell you to 'bug off.'"

And no reference is off-limits: Sunrise Commissioner Joey Scuotto was quoted saying the city needs "somebody with balls." Pembroke Pines Commissioner Angelo Castillo said the county needs to "grow a pair."

Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, said being an elected official isn't easy, but it doesn't excuse them from showing respect to residents or others in the community.

"Local government is up front and personal, passions flair," said Calabro. "The bottom line is, they have a lot more air time and ways of expressing themselves than an ordinary citizen. When in doubt, show restraint and forbearance."

Sims said if he, or anyone else on the Cooper City Commission steps out of line again, there should be a motion to censure or some sort of disciplinary proceeding.

"It's the most dysfunctional group of people I've worked with," he said. "I don't know what the answer is, but it's time for that stuff to stop."



Source: (c)2013 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Distributed by MCT Information Services