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  1. Florida Politics

Constitution commission feuds over rules and adhering to Sunshine Law

Carlos Beruff is the chairman of the Constitution Revision Commission, the 37-member panel that will propose revisions to Florida's constitution on the 2018 ballot. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Jun. 1, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Two months after the formation of the Constitution Revision Commission, the rules governing the 37-member panel remain in turmoil as a power struggle between the chairman and the rest of the commission has emerged.

The commission is convened every 20 years and is given the power to put proposals directly on the November 2018 ballot. The chairman, Carlos Beruff, was appointed by the governor along with 14 other members. The remaining commissioners were appointed by the House speaker, Senate president and chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

Before the commission first met on March 20, Beruff proposed a set of rules to shape how the panel operates. They were modeled after the rules used by the CRC that convened in 1997-98 but modified to essentially give Beruff the authority to control which proposals made it to the ballot — more power than the chair had 20 years ago.

Beruff, who is mindful of the fact that Gov. Rick Scott is also likely to be on the 2018 ballot as a candidate for U.S. Senate, faced immediate resistance from the other commission members, who refused to adopt his rules.

He then appointed a six-member working group made up of two members chosen by each of the appointing officers. After meeting for five hours last month, the group rejected most of the changes sought by Beruff — many of them on 6-2 votes with the governor's appointees voting no. Among the group's recommendations was that the panel be in compliance with the state Constitution and require all meetings of two or more members to be in the sunshine.

Rather than schedule another meeting of the working group, however, Beruff last week decided to disband it and called a meeting for June 6 in Orlando in which the entire 37-member panel would adopt rules.

"In light of the extensive time required by the working group to continue its work and the likelihood that much of their discussion will need to be reiterated with the full Commission, I think you will agree that consensus on Rules must be achieved on an expedited timeline to ensure we can continue our very important commitment to Floridians," Beruff wrote in a letter to commissioners. He then ordered that proposed amendments be filed by noon on Thursday and offered no explanation for why he changed course.

But his fellow commissioners are not happy.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, appointed to the commission by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, filed an amendment late Wednesday that adopts the rules of the 1997-98 commission. In an email to other commissioners, he asks them to join him as a co-sponsor.

"What the working group did didn't go over well," Lee said. "This seems the most equitable way to proceed. This is a starting place."

Former Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican appointed to the commission by Senate President Joe Negron, agrees the working group's efforts were shelved because Beruff and the governor's staff didn't like the results.

"The working group comprised of appointees from all branches of government has been dismissed, probably because we were coming to consensus on things that were not acceptable to those who were running the commission," Gaetz said. "There are independent, thoughtful people on this commission. What is called for is a presider — not a decider."

He added that because the commission has held nine public hearings without any rules, "it's kind of awkward. It would have been better to have settled how we are going to cooperate before we started operating."

Among the changes Beruff is seeking are provisions that will allow him to reject proposals by individual members or committees, send a proposal back to a committee after it has been amended in another committee — a tool used to effectively kill proposals — and give him sole discretion over what proposals will be referred to which committee.

He also proposes upending Florida sunshine laws: allowing members of the commission to meet for the first time with two or more members in secret.

Barbara Petersen, president of the non-profit First Amendment Foundation, warns that the commission should be considered an executive branch agency and must follow the open meeting provisions of Article I of the Florida Constitution or risk having everything it does invalidated. Instead, she said, Beruff's proposed rules apply the standard used by the Legislature — which allows for only meetings of more than two members to be considered an open meeting.

"If they adopt the legislative standards, rather than the Article I standard and somebody disagrees with what they've done and files a lawsuit, everything they've done is out the window," Petersen said.

Roberto Martinez, a Miami lawyer appointed to the commission by the Supreme Court, has proposed an amendment to the rules that adopts the stricter Sunshine Law standards.

"I feel very strongly this commission should be governed by the Sunshine Law," he said. "The two prior commissions were. This is very basic stuff. Every Floridians that has served on a government board or agency board has been subject to the Sunshine Law. This is not a mystery to anybody."

Through a spokeswoman, Beruff chose to refrain from responding to the criticism or answer why he decided to disband the working group.

"The ultimate objective is to include all commissioners in the rule development process during the open and transparent public meeting to be held on June 6," said Meredith Beatrice, commission spokesperson. She repeated what Beruff said in his letter to commissioners, that commissioners will have the opportunity to amend the rules.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas

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