Senate committee says voters should have the right to speak at public meetings

A Senate sub-committee Wednesday voted unanimously to support a bill giving citizens the right to speak at public meetings.  James Call reports, lawmakers are acting after an appellate court invited them to clear up any confusion about the public’s right to speak when at commission, council and other governmental meetings. 

 

Palm City Senator Joe Negron says he was moved to act after two appeals courts found that the state’s open meeting law did not address public comment. Negron says if one were to debate what are an American’s most precious rights, he would include a citizen’s right to be heard when public policy is being set.

“We’re a country founded by revolutionaries. And when you have someone spending millions of dollars of public money, people have volunteered to serve on these boards and guess what? If you are serving on a board or representing the voters you are going to have to hear from the voters. And sometimes it is not going to be pleasant, and if you can’t handle then do something else with your time.”

Both the First and Fifth districts Court of Appeal have affirmed decisions in the past two years that a governmental agency’s refusal to hear public comment during a meeting, was not a violation of the Sunshine Law. Last month, a cleric was threatened with arrest when he refused to step away from a microphone at a Pensacola City Council meeting.

Father Nathan Monk was criticizing the city’s policy concerning the homeless when council President Sam Hall ruled him out of order. While Monk stood his ground at the podium two uniformed police officers closed in on him.

In a matter of a week a YouTube video of Monk’s defiance of Hall generated more than 80 thousand hits. Senator Negron:

“It’s a very fundamental principal of government that we work for the citizens and not the other way around, and when I see situations where citizens are being denied the right to speak I think it is appropriate for the Legislature to act.”

More than 40 years ago the Florida Legislature, according to First Amendment and media experts, passed the strictest open government laws in the nation. Former Florida State University President and Law School Dean Sandy D’Alemberte was a state senator when lawmakers approved the Sunshine Law.  D’Alemberte is lobbying in support of the bill on behalf of the Florida Press Association. 

“The idea that you can go to a meeting and that you have something to say and not be heard strike us, strikes the Florida Press Association and its members, as something of a denial of something we always assumed as a fundamental right to address government.”

Destin Republican Don Gaetz represents Pensacola in the Senate. Gaetz has served as a school superintendent and is in line to be the next President of the Florida Senate. He says he believes it is critical that the public has a right to speak before a vote is taken.

“The importance of Senator Negron’s bill which I am delighted to co-sponsor is that the public itself cannot be told we’re about to make a decision that affects the public’s business and we don’t want to hear from any of you.”

Gaetz, Negron and D’Alemberte comments apparently overwhelmed the subcommittee on ethics and elections. It voted unanimously to recommend the bill to the full committee. Broward Representative Marty Kiar has filed a companion bill in the House.