ST. PETE BEACH – “Good of the Order” sounds like some ceremony from the days of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, or a ritual practiced by some secret group, but it will actually be how St. Pete Beach commissioners sidestep offering an invocation, prayer, or moment of silence before its public meetings.
Several weeks ago, Mayor Al Johnson announced that the commission was no longer going to offer its traditional invocation at the start of meetings because the city received an unsigned complaint that alleged the city was violating the separation of church and state doctrine set forth in the U.S. Constitution. In the complaint the writer reportedly said the city was continually referring to a specific deity in its invocation.
At that time, Johnson said, instead of an invocation, the commission would offer a minute of silence after the Pledge of Allegiance and before the start of the people’s business. He noted several other cities and other public entities were doing away with their invocation.
Recently, Commissioner Terri Finnerty asked fellow commissioners to revisit the topic, suggesting there are many secular invocations that could be offered. She said it bothers her that an unsigned complaint from one person caused the commission to do away with its invocation.
Finnerty said an invocation or affirmation would be “a really nice, upbeat, positive thing to start out with.”
She asked City Attorney Andrew Dickman to research if a message of affirmation is permitted before the commission conducted business.
Dickman noted “there isn’t a bright line test to tell you which way to go, and whether you should have a nonsecular or secular invocation.”
Dickman advised most recently the courts have ruled that asking people to stand and referencing one domination or religion over another did violate people’s rights. He advised a better way is to have an invocation directed toward commissioners giving each other clarity of mind and purpose.
The invocation “should not make anyone feel uncomfortable,” he added. He advised commissioners to keep the affirmation positive and focus on the commission’s comradery, without endorsing a creed or religion.
The city attorney cautioned against having representative clergy present invocations, which could be seen as focusing on one deity over another and make someone uncomfortable.
Finnerty said there are several secular affirmations where the commission “can focus on us and our strengths.”
As an example, she said, “May we use only our best skills and judgment to keep impartial, neutral and act what is in the best interest of the city.”
Commissioner Melinda Pletcher noted that “would be more of an affirmation; we would not be closing our eyes.” She added “this came up because we got a strongly worded complaint on issue.”
Finnerty added “what bothers me about that one person is they didn’t even sign it.”
Johnson said he always wondered why there as an invocation before the commission meeting and not before workshops. “I like the affirmation part; It reminds us to keep our heads in the game,” Johnson said. “People can stand for the Pledge and then stand or sit during affirmation.”
Dickman told commissioners they can still call it an invocation. “There are public meetings that have invocations, but if you go over the top you get into trouble … Try to find a way not to cause anyone to feel uncomfortable.”
Pletcher added “I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable.”
Commissioner Ward Friszolowski told fellow commissioners, while he is not against an invocation, “I’m not sure it’s important to anyone. I’m fine with a moment of silence. I don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable.”
At first commissioners suggested calling it “an affirmation of purpose,” but then seized on the parliamentary term in Robert’s Rules of Order allowing for a “Good of the Order” presentation.
According to Robert’s Rules, strictly speaking, the Good of the Order portion is a time set aside for members to offer comments or observations without formal motions about the organization or its work. It is also a time to bring forth a disciplinary charge against a member of the board for offenses committed outside of a meeting.
St. Pete Beach commissioners will use the time to present positive affirmations designed to inspire them to make good decisions.
Commissioners decided to open their next meeting with a Good of the Order affirmation.