Right now local governments are required to let their citizenry know when they’re going to hold a public meeting, but Florida law doesn’t require the agencies to let members of the public speak during those meetings. Regan McCarthy reports lawmakers are looking into a bill that gives Floridians a right to be heard.
Many people think the right to have their voices heard at a public meeting is a given, but Representative Martin Kiar says at some of Florida’s local government meetings, that’s not the case.
“You have governmental bodies out there, local governmental bodies who are prohibiting people from speaking on issues that affect their community and that’s just wrong.”
Kiar, a Democrat from Southwest Ranches, says right now local government officials aren’t legally required to give members of the public a chance to speak during their meetings.
“The Florida constitution requires that meetings be noticed so people have an opportunity to come, but there’s nothing in the constitution or in statute that requires that people be given the opportunity to speak.”
But he says his bill, HB355, would require that members of the public be given a “reasonable” opportunity to be heard on items that come before a local board or commission. Kiar says what “reasonable” means is largely left up to the local officials to decide. For example, he says the bill would allow the body to set time limits, or ask a large group to name a representative to speak for them. Kair says the constitution sets out different rules for the state legislature. Representative Barbara Watson, a Miami Gardens Democrat, says she knows from personal experience that a law like this is needed.
“Coming from the local government I have found in the past, there are times when the public has been muzzled to the point that they’re not getting their point across, and also addressing their concern and getting the appropriate answers.”
But perhaps the most frequent public speaker at the state house, Justice 2 Jesus spokesman Brian Pitts, says Kiar’s proposal won’t fix the problem.
“It needs to be more specific, because they know how to hold up a meeting and drag and drag so long, ‘oh we’re out of time, we’re not going to have time to have public testimony today on this matter.’ I myself personally deal with it. I am empirical evidence of dealing with it in my local government.”
And Representative Matt Gaetz, whose father, Senator Don Gaetz, is listed as a co-sponsor of the Senate’s version of the bill, says he supports open government, but doesn’t think the measure is needed.
“If you provide notice to each citizen, then the burden shifts to the citizenry to participate. And the notion that the only way to participate is by testifying at a public meeting is inaccurate. You see then we let democracy work. If there’s notice, then each citizen can communicate before the meeting with their elected officials, and can seek to participate at the meeting. If elected officials then choose to not meet with their constituents prior to the meeting, or if elected officials choose to not allow their constituents to speak at the meeting, there’s a democracy solution. Those folks can be voted out.”
But Representative Franklin Sands, a Democrat from Sunrise, says he can see some holes in Gaetz’s argument.
“Folks who don’t give the public the right to speak should be voted out of office and hopefully would be voted out of office, but while we’re waiting for that vote, the public still does not have the right to speak.”
The measure passed through the House Rulemaking and Regulation Subcommittee. Kiar says he plans to continue meeting with the stakeholders who might be affected by the legislation and will likely make some amendments before the bill turns up in its next, and final, committee stop.