It’s been three weeks since July 4th and a month since the controversy surrounding the sponsorship of Safety Harbor’s fireworks display first surfaced.
Yet like a wayward bottle rocket falling into some dry brush, the debate over the issue has proven difficult to extinguish.
The topic was raised again on Monday night when, in the first City Commission meeting since the Fourth, Vice Mayor Cliff Merz voiced concerns he said were brought to his attention during the city’s Independence Day festivities.
“I don’t think this meeting could go by without discussions about what has occurred,” the vice mayor said during his commission report.
“I had lots of conversations with people, and I’d like to summarize them into three areas and then bring it up for discussion.”
Merz explained the three areas of concern were: better information regarding advertising and sponsoring events; the fireworks shouldn’t be commercialized, they should be strictly a city event; and city officials should not be allowed to sponsor civic events.
By now the story behind the controversy has been well-documented: a flyer that was included in last month’s utility bill advertising the city’s Fourth of July festivities mistakenly credited the primary sponsor of the fireworks show, Blake Real Estate, which is owned by Safety Harbor Commissioner Rick Blake, as the sponsor of the annual Independence Day parade as well.
The snafu proved to be an inadvertent error made during the design of the flyer, according to officials, and the city worked quickly to rectify the error and properly credit the parade’s actual sponsor, American Legion Auxiliary Unity #238.
But the mistake brought the question of whether city officials should be allowed to sponsor civic events to the attention of some who believe there is a conflict of interest with the practice.
While it had already been established by the city attorney that there is no ethical or legal conflict regarding any city officials, elected or otherwise, sponsoring events, the practice still rankles some residents.
“I know of at least 16 people who talked to me who do not like the general idea of an elected official sponsoring or providing extra money,” Merz explained. “Some felt it was a conflict of interest.”
Perhaps tiring of a subject that has not crossed any moral, ethical or legal boundaries, other commissioners opted to dismiss the issue until if and when it is ever put on the agenda.
“We’re in an awkward position because some people like us in the community and some people don’t like us,” Mayor Andy Steingold said. “If we sponsor something, just like someone else sponsors something, we get the benefits of being a sponsor.”
“I don’t think there’s anything unethical about it or anything wrong with it, it’s just a question of whether or not the commission wants to deal with it and set a policy.”
“I heard something similar, too,” Commissioner Carlos Diaz added. “But if you put something down that a commissioner can’t do any business, where do you draw the line? Can you not advertise (your business) in Safety Harbor?”
Commissioner Blake, who also owns the parent company of this website, had the last word on the subject, at least that night.
“I don’t think this is a conversation that even needs to be had here,” he said. “Some people like me and some people don’t.”
“But I’ve had literally hundreds of people who’ve written letters, emails, text messages, people stopping by and saying thank you,” he added. “The gratitude out there is way larger than this small group, so I don’t think it’s worth the commission’s time to discuss it.”
The topic ended with the city manager saying the issue would be explored again Monday night, when the commission meets to set the budget for next year.
As it stands today, funding for the fireworks is not included in the budget, meaning the event will likely again be seeking outside sponsorship.
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