Floridians will be guaranteed the right to speak at public meetings, if Gov. Rick Scott signs a bill that’s headed his way. The public comment bill passed the House on Wednesday after unanimously passing the senate.
One open government watchdog group is celebrating the Legislature’s passing what it calls the “Anti-Shushing Bill.”
Barbara Peterson, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said, “It’s not a huge bill. It’s a huge right.”
The First Amendment Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that monitors the Legislature to see what it’s doing to make government more and less transparent. She said, the bill that the House just passed, 113-to-2, is not complicated.
“What this bill does, simply—it’s very simple—it says every government agency must allow the public a reasonable opportunity to be heard before it takes action on a particular item. Easy.”
Specifically, at any meetings where a city, county, or special taxing district is about to vote on a proposal, the body must provide time for the public to comment. If it doesn’t, a court can intervene and issue an injunction. Plus, the board might be forced to pay attorneys’ fees if it’s found to violate the rule.
Sponsor of the bill in House, Rep. Ray Rodrigues, (R-Fort Myers) said he’s trying to right a wrong.
“The opportunity for the public to comment at government meetings is not enshrined in our sunshine statutes. So what that means is that any county, municipality or government agency could strike public comment, and there’s nothing that could be done about it,” he said.
In a 2010 case that made its way all the way to the Florida Supreme Court, judges ruled that Florida citizens did not have the right to speak at public meetings. Their reasoning was that Florida statutes didn’t specifically name that right. And Rodrigues said, now is the time to fix that.
“We practically invented sunshine. In 1967, when we put in the Florida Government in the Sunshine open meetings [laws], we were the first in the country to do that, and everyone else has followed our lead. And for me, this is a step backwards, to allow the public input to be removed is a step backward, and it’s not the direction that we need to be going in.”
He said, most cities and counties already do allow the public to speak before voting on public matters. But he’s heard of at least one water management district that has not been allowing it.
“Growing up, I heard a phrase, that children are to be seen and not heard. The official position of the courts now is that tax payers are to be treated like children,” he said.
This is the third year the public comment bill has been introduced in the Legislature. It passed unanimously in the Senate and almost unanimously in the House. It’s only no votes came from Rep. Clovis Watson (D-Gainesville) and John Tobia (R-Melbourne). Tobia has said his goal is to never get involved in local government unless they are doing something fiscally irresponsible.
Gov. Scott has 15 days to sign the public comment bill.