Fearful for Florida? Tune into Tampa Bay government meetings
Listen in the bath, on dog walks or in person. Just pay attention.
The School Board Meeting Agenda notebook on the sign in before the beginning of the Pinellas County School Board meeting, at 301 4th St. SW on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023 in Largo.
The School Board Meeting Agenda notebook on the sign in before the beginning of the Pinellas County School Board meeting, at 301 4th St. SW on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023 in Largo. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 3|Updated Mar. 3

You have not ascended the summit of relaxation, not witnessed the clarion bluffs of peace until you have reclined in a hot bath with AirPods in, listening to the dulcet tones of citizens yelling at elected officials to do their jobs.

No, mon Dieu, you are thinking. The tub is meant for Yanni, at least, or 12 Hours of Soothing Sea Sounds on YouTube. But that’s the old way of thinking. Massage music was a privilege of the recent past, a simpler time when key increments of Florida’s democracy were not being masticated in real time, as a buzzard gnaws flesh off fresh roadkill.

Nowadays, baths are the perfect place to stream government meetings! Throw in Epsom salts and cue up the municipality of your choice. My hobby, for example, is washing my corporeal form while stalking the Pinellas County School Board, waiting for them to stop being so silly and put “The Bluest Eye” back on shelves. Maybe your issues are different, but there’s a guaranteed meeting for that.

Here’s one theme of 2023: overwhelm. Since reelection, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his musketeers of justice have unleashed shocking moves faster than Sonic the Hedgehog in a Spin Attack. You hear the major news as it happens, of course: New College, book bans, AP African American Studies, the housing authority, the migrant crisis, all other controversies outlined in the state’s personal Burn Book.

But plenty of odious machinations start quietly in local board rooms. For instance, if you tuned into the school board’s meeting Tuesday, you know it lasted a whopping five hours, from 5 to about 10 p.m. That’s because 56 people signed up to make public comments, numbers not seen since the days of masking wars. Two weeks earlier, the number of speakers hovered just above 20.

You are saying, so? What happened? Tell me so I can get back to the best of Enya! Ah, but it’s not that clear-cut. Public meetings do not always yield a sexy headline, but rather, an overall impression that’s still worth absorbing.

If you logged into this particular meeting while walking the dog or folding towels, you would have seen Moms for Liberty board members unsuccessfully prodding at potential mines. They questioned the fiscal responsibility of AVID, a popular program that supports many students in the academic middle who need a push, whose parents might not have gone to college.

Similarly, if you fired up this week’s Hillsborough County Commission meeting while cleaning forgotten leftovers from the fridge, you’d have caught commissioner Michael Owen calling for parental controls at county libraries and for all 30 branches to break up with the American Library Association. A Manatee County commissioner suggested the same move a week ago, another local iteration of broader library crackdowns across the country.

Whatever floats your rage boat, though. Maybe it’s a proposed Dunkin’ where you’d prefer a small business, a tear-down of a historic building, a roundabout, a sports field, a nature preserve. Maybe you need proof that cartoonish ideas of “culture wars” are actually unfolding in tangible ways at a grassroots level. Maybe you’re feeling isolated, confused about Florida’s direction, fearful for the support structures on which so many rely. Maybe you want to hear the vast majority of 56 speakers echo those concerns.

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Many of us aspire to be more civic-minded, like those iconic gadflies who attend every public forum. But the reality is, we don’t all have the requisite Jerry Garcia ponytail. More seriously, everyone has different access to transportation, time and childcare, different tolerances for public speaking. Plus, all the brown government carpets! The Robert’s Rules, yuck!

So, here’s the other theme for the year: Start small. Community engagement is not all or nothing. Many public meetings, events we pay for with taxes, are streamed live or available online at your convenience. So are written minutes and audio recordings. Until we wake up on the next despotic morning to find our access stripped, or until I am marched through the square with the “Game of Thrones” shame bell for writing this opinion, we can still be involved at our own pace. We can feel less blindsided, perpetually anxious and powerless.

Yes, you can sign up to speak. That’s wonderful, A+++. Please, keep the school board sitting on uncomfortable dais chairs for days; this is the job they chose. Just do any one thing. Tune in, let the video roll in that bubble bath while enjoying a pleasing plastic tumbler of Two-Buck Chuck. Feel a tiny infusion of control seeping back into your pores.

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