Fla. bill would require public comment at meetings
Published: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 2:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 2:18 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — Florida's citizens would get the right to be heard on public issues, not just be seen, at meetings of local government and state executive branch bodies under a bill that cleared a Senate subcommittee Wednesday.
The measure (SB 206) was filed in response to a pair of appellate court rulings that noted Florida's open government "sunshine law" requires officials to meet in public but does not give citizens a right to speak at those meetings.
The legislation filed by Sen. Joe Negron would give the public that right with certain limitations.
"We're a country founded by revolutionaries," said the Stuart Republican. "Guess what, if you're serving on a board or you're representing the voters you're going to have to hear from the voters and sometimes it won't be pleasant. And if you can't handle it then do something else with your time."
The bill would still let governmental bodies set time limits on public comment. They also could limit comment to representatives of large groups or factions rather than give everyone a chance to be heard. They also would set procedures citizens must follow to give notice of their intent to speak.
Purely ministerial and quasi-judicial actions that affect an individual's rights would be exempt. So would emergency situations affecting public health, welfare or safety.
The bill was heard by the Rule's Committee's subcommittee on ethics and elections. Negron promised he would ask the full Rules Committee, which gets the bill next, to remove a provision that would nullify any actions taken in violation of the public comment requirement.
League of Cities legislative counsel Kraig Conn said that would alleviate much of the angst that local officials have over the bill because they were worried about unintentional violations. Officials could still face up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine for knowingly violating the measure.
Conn also urged lawmakers to make it clear governmental bodies could set other reasonable restrictions besides those cited in the bill, but Negron rejected that proposal.
Local officials are afraid that courts would rule against local policies, such as those restricting placards and allowing for the removal of unruly citizens, Conn said.
"Why is the League of Cities so afraid of its constituents and their voices and their placards?" asked Sen. Don Gaetz in what the Niceville Republican acknowledged was a rhetorical question.
Conn, though, responded that he was simply bringing technical issues to the panel's attention and that the league did not oppose the bill.
Gaetz' question also came a day after Senate security officials kept Occupy Florida demonstrators out of the chamber's public gallery because of fears they might be disruptive. The bill would not apply to legislative meetings.
The 1st District Court of Appeal in 2010 rejected complaints by two citizens that Pensacola's Maritime Park Associates, a local governmental body in Gaetz' Panhandle district, had violated the sunshine law by refusing to let them speak at a public meeting.
The Florida Supreme Court subsequently refused to consider the citizens' appeal. In October, the 5th District Court of Appeal made a similar ruling in a case involving the St. Johns Water Management District.
Negron acknowledged those cases are the exception and said most governmental bodies do allow public participation.
A similar bill (HB 355) has been filed in the House but has not yet been heard in committee. The Legislature began its 60-day session on Tuesday.
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