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Panel speaks out on rules for speaking up

(ran West, East, South, Seminole editions)

A community activist accused fire commissioners of breaking the state's open meetings law by barring residents from speaking to the board before they vote on issues.

The policy also bars people from talking to the Lealman commission on any item on the agenda or that has been voted on at an earlier date.

"You don't let us talk until everything is over," Sasha Friedman said. And when talk is allowed, she said, it's limited.

The open meetings law, she said, requires that board members allow for public comment on agenda items.

Pat Gleason, general counsel for state Attorney General Charlie Crist and an expert on Sunshine Law issues, said her office does not comment on specific cases. But she said court cases make it clear that meaningful public participation is "an important component of the Sunshine Law."

In a case that sounds similar to the Lealman situation, Gleason said a court found a board had violated the Sunshine Law because it did not allow public comment until after members had voted to grant a permit.

The state attorney general has no ability to investigate claims that the law has been violated, Gleason said, but anyone upset by board rules could call her and ask that the situation be referred to her office's Open Government Mediation program. The program's goal is to help find a long-term solution to the issue.

"I have to say I'm a little stunned," said Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.

The policy, Petersen said, should be changed because it violates the "spirit and intent" of the Sunshine Law and the idea of representational democracy. If elected officials do not listen, they will not know what their constituents want.

"They work for us," Petersen said.

Friedman's comments received mixed reaction among fire commissioners.

John Frank and Bill Adams said they wanted to relax the group's rules to allow free public comment.

"I think it's an important part of the decisionmaking process," Frank said. "My concern is the moral and ethical side of the equation."

Adams said the people who are paying the bills ought to be able to comment on what the commission does.

Chairman Mike Brophy and member Linda Campbell said there were ample opportunities for residents to talk with individual board members. Brophy in particular wanted to wait until the board's assistant attorney, Julia Mandell Cole, checked into the legal issues before considering policy changes.

Campbell said board members' phone numbers are public. If a resident has something to say, they can call the board member, who is obligated to bring the matter before the commission.

Brophy said the fire station is open most of the day and people can walk in anytime to express their views. The commission cannot open the floor to anyone who wants to talk about anything, he said.

"It's not a debate," Brophy said. "It's not an open forum."

Audience member Linda Schaffer objected. The way the commission has it set up, she said, the only things people can comment on are highways, traffic or garbage because fire issues are out of bounds.

"It's very frustrating to sit here and not be able to comment," Schaffer said.

At one time, fire board members allowed free comment on all items. But a little more than a year ago, community activists began using their time to criticize board actions.

The group changed its rules about public comment, forcing those wanting to comment to sign a form. Comments are restricted to a section at the end of the agenda and are limited.

The rules also have been used to prevent commissioners from asking questions of public speakers, sparking protests from board members seeking to gain a better understanding of the point being made.

The Lealman board is out of step with many municipalities.

Seminole allows comment before taking a vote. That city council also has an open forum at the end of the meeting.

Next-door Pinellas Park allows public comment before any vote. Like Seminole, there also is an open forum at the end for people to talk about anything they want.

At workshop meetings, people can ask to speak and the council frequently allows it.

"They're very open about letting people speak. That's a good thing. If you're going to represent the people, it's best to allow the opportunity for people to make their opinions heard," Pinellas Park spokesman Tim Caddell said.

Caddell conceded things can get tense and uncomfortable when people object to actions or want to criticize individual council members. But that's part of it, he said.

"It's easy to let people speak when they're going to agree with you," Caddell said. "The real test of it is when you let people speak when they're going to voice their opinions in opposition to you."

Annexation issues to be

off-limits for attorney

LEALMAN _ Fire commissioners discovered Monday that their attorney, Andrew Salzman, cannot represent them in annexation matters because he has a conflict of interest.

Salzman is a member of the law firm headed by Alan Zimmet, who is Largo's city attorney. Largo has filed suit to eliminate an ordinance that established annexation planning boundary lines. If the suit is successful and the lines are removed, cities could freely annex into the Lealman area.

Activists have complained that repeated annexations hurt Lealman's tax base and will eventually lead to higher fire taxes.

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