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House Committee OKs Public Comment, Public-Private Partnership Bills

Floridians would be allowed to speak at all public meetings, if a bill passes the Legislature. It was one of several bills that passed out of the House Government Operations Committee on Wednesday.

The public-comment bill’s House sponsor is Ray Rodrigues (R-Fort Myers). He said, it would restore the rights people had to speak at public meetings before a 2010 court case called that into question.

“We practically invented sunshine. In 1967, when we put in the Florida government open meetings, we were the first in the country to do that. Everyone followed our lead. And for me, this is a step backwards,” he said.

Most county and city governments allow comment already. But, Rodrigues said, some special taxing districts have been making decisions without taking that step. And without the fix, he said, local governments can’t be punished for it.

“Growing up, I heard a phrase often, which was that children were to be seen but not heard. The official position of the courts now are that taxpayers are to be treated like children. They can be seen but not heard. I don’t think that’s right,” Rodrigues said.

The bill is sponsored in the Senate by Joe Negron (R-Palm City).

Another bill that got the Government Operations Committee’s support is the so-called public-private partnership bill, sponsored by Rep. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota). Steube said, the bill would provide another financing option for local governments and universities that don’t have enough money for infrastructure improvements.

But, the Florida League of Cities says the bill is unnecessary because public-private partnerships are already possible. And Doug Martin, with Florida’s branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said, the bill would give private entities too much control over public institutions.

“It allows the design, building, financing, operation and maintenance. Well, if private operation of public infrastructure isn’t privatization, what is?” Martin said.

But bill sponsor Steube said, governments would still own the infrastructure and they’d work out profit-sharing plans with private investors.

“So the public is being able to benefit from the public-private partnership, the entity is able to benefit from the public-private partnership, and the private company that’s been able to build this project is being able to hire workers, create jobs and do the project, so my feel on this is that everybody wins,” he said.

And a bill relating to local governments and who gets their contracts also made it out of the committee. The measure, sponsored by John Tobia (R-Melbourne), would do away with local governments’ ability to favor local contractors during the bid process. Tobia said, such policies are bad for taxpayers because they reduce the number of contractors who apply and drive up costs.

“My goal is never to get involved in local governments unless they’re doing something that’s fiscally irresponsible,” Tobia said.

But the Florida League of Cities opposes the bill, calling it a “mandate” that takes away local control.

Finally, the committee unanimously passed a bill called the paper reduction bill, sponsored by Bryan Nelson (R-Apopka). It would digitize property appraisers’ notices and insurance records that are currently sent by paper mail. It also allows voters to receive sample ballots by e-mail instead of the physical copies mailed out now.

Pasco County election supervisor Brian Corley said, he supports the bill, and he supports a new public records exemption the bill would create for voters’ e-mail addresses.

“Voters have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to dealing with elections administration and giving their e-mail address for the purpose of having a sample ballot sent to them,” he said.

But open-government watchdog group the First Amendment Foundation is not happy with the proposed exemption, saying it’s a slippery slope toward exempting all e-mail addresses of anyone communicating with the government.