Florida citizens deserve right to speak at public meetings

You pay your taxes and play by the rules.

You also keep hearing that Florida is a leader in open government "sunshine."

So one day you decide to give the folks at City Hall your 2 cents' worth at a public meeting.

But City Hall is not obligated to provide you a soapbox (though most local governments do allow time for public comment at meetings).

In two cases involving obscure taxing districts in Pensacola and Palatka, courts ruled that refusing to allow public comment at a public meeting is not a violation of the Sunshine Law.

The Florida Constitution is silent on the question of whether citizens have an absolute right to be heard, so the Legislature is now involved.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is pushing a bill to require governments to give people a "reasonable opportunity" to speak on an issue.

SB 206 is subject to a few conditions. For example, if 300 people want to speak on the same issue, a city can require the group to select one spokesman to speak for three minutes, and to fill out a form.

"We need more public participation, not less," Negron says.

But when Negron presented the proposal before a Senate elections subcommittee, Kraig Conn, a lobbyist and counsel to the Florida League of Cities, voiced concern with it. So the senator took out language that would have nullified official actions if people were not allowed to talk.

Also removed was a criminal penalties section, as well as a clause allowing for "inadvertent" violations, changes Conn said "provide a great deal of comfort" to city governments across the state. Negron is trying to find a new penalty provision that will be acceptable to all sides.

But now, some people think Negron's bill isn't strong enough. Citizen lobbyist Brian Pitts of St. Petersburg was incredulous that a local government would inadvertently shut out the public.

"I don't get that," Pitts told senators. "You're not going to inadvertently do something like that. You know what you're doing."

Pitts is the best example of how legislators allow people to talk. Day after day and week after week, he gives lawmakers his 2 cents' worth.

But there is an irony here. The Senate took up Negron's public comment bill exactly one day after it refused to allow Occupy Tallahassee protesters to sit in the Senate visitors' gallery on the first day of the session last week.

Senate security officers were worried the sign-waving protesters would be too disruptive, so they did their chanting in the hallways.

Passage of the public comment bill is far from assured. At the other end of the Capitol, there's little enthusiasm.

It died in the House last year. This year's House sponsor, Rep. Martin Kiar, D-Davie, is having trouble getting his bill (HB 355) heard in the House Government Operations Subcommittee.

"Nobody has given me a straight answer as to why they don't want to hear it," Kiar said.

Negron knows some local officials would rather not sit there until midnight, listening to people prattle on endlessly about something.

"Sometimes it won't be pleasant," he said. "But if you can't handle it, do something else with your time."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida citizens deserve right to speak at public meetings 01/16/12 [Last modified: Monday, January 16, 2012 8:41pm]

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