Tip O'Neill, a longtime U.S. House speaker, famously said that "all politics is local." Ultimately, it is at the county commission, city council and school board where average citizens can have their greatest influence on the government decisions that impact them most directly. A worthwhile bill awaiting a vote by the full Florida House would guarantee Floridians the ability to participate in the meetings of local government to an unprecedented degree.
Under the Vox Populi or Voice of the People Act (HB 991, SB 2276), Florida's generous sunshine laws would be expanded to include the right of residents to speak at local government meetings on both agenda and nonagenda items. They would also be able to pull items off a consent agenda and have them considered separately. And rather than be shunted to the end of a long public meeting, the public would be invited to speak on any topic for at least 15 minutes at the start. No one would be allocated less than three minutes to speak.
The measure's House sponsor, Rep. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, a former mayor and councilwoman, has explained that she is responding to people who say they feel disenfranchised by local government.
To be sure, there is a general sense that the public comment periods are too often treated as an afterthought by local officials. Most public bodies do invite the general public to speak, but busy constituents typically have to endure significant waits while other business is done. Sometimes members of the public wait for hours not knowing when or if they will get a turn at the microphone.
This disincentive to public participation would be turned around under the Vox Populi Act. Residents would be guaranteed more input, in a timely way, and they would enjoy a small degree of control over how meetings are conducted. Consent agenda items that are voted on in blocks would be subject to greater scrutiny and public comment. The public could request in writing that an issue be placed on a future agenda. And members of the public could participate even during formal public hearings and workshops, where their input is often barred.
These changes would make local government officials more aware of concerns facing their communities, if not more accountable and responsive.
The Florida League of Cities opposes the bill, believing it would interfere with local government autonomy. But this need for statewide standards grows out of too many disrespected citizens having their concerns ruled out of order or disregarded.