During the St Johns County Commission meeting called on Tuesday, May 20, 2014, Historic City News reporters watched, with interest, as vice-chairman Rachael Bennett called for public comments; the three-minute opportunity members of the public have to address their elected government officials — with some appurtenant restrictions.
As citizens committed to transparency in government, our instinctive suspicion is raised anytime those who are paid to administer the operation of our government arbitrarily impose limits or restrictions on the civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.
In that meeting, in addition to the admonishment that speakers hold their remarks until the related item comes up on the agenda; a new caveat that the speaker’s comments relate to matters within the purview of the Board is being imposed. We were not aware of any public discussion on the new “rule” restricting public speech during an open Board meeting; so, Historic City News editor, Michael Gold, contacted the County Attorney, Patrick McCormack, for an explanation.
Specifically Gold asked, “Would you cite for the record the provision of Florida Statutes enabling such restrictions on the public’s right to address the Board of County Commissioners at an open, public meeting; as I am advised that no such restriction exists in law?”
We did not receive a responsive reply, at first, rather the county attorney wanted to speak to our attorney before he made his response. Historic City News receives legal advice from local attorneys who we feel are best suited to respond; based on their experience and familiarity with the matter at issue. Although this matter was not ripe for suit, we did ask for advice from an attorney whose practice includes government law. Had the county remained unresponsive on this inquiry, the attorney would be introduced to our legal counsel.
“Florida law does not provide a general right to speak at public meetings on any possible topic not relevant to the particular board’s public business,” McCormack said in his reply. “St Johns County provides, for non-agenda items, an opportunity to speak about matters which may reasonably need attention of the board.”
According to McCormack, St Johns County provides public comment opportunities at meetings far in excess of what is required by law.
“In general, Florida law provides for the right to speak only pertaining to propositions (e.g., ordinances, business items, etc.),” McCormack stated. “There are also special requirements for some particular types of hearings (e.g., re-zonings, budget adoption, etc.).”
Comments from citizens during the “general comments” agenda item, early in the meeting, often include notice of community events, opinions on County operations or policies, or specific requests of the County.
At the end of the day, McCormack defends the limitations imposed on citizens who make comments during county commission meetings, saying, “As the public meeting forum is intended for County related matters, these boundaries are reasonable.”
During the same meeting, the second speaker was allowed to use a substantial portion of his allotted 3-minute comments in a public endorsement for the re-election of County Commissioner Ron Sanchez and Chairman John H “Jay” Morris — in fact, the chair invited the speaker to continue as long as he wanted and Commissioner Sanchez, the beneficiary of the recommendation, said that the speaker should be given “three more minutes” to continue the political endorsement.
Neither of the endorsements is within the purview of the Board, however, they were broadcast, uncensored and without compensation, over the Government Television network — as well as the publically viewable Internet feed of the meeting. This prompted us to inquire, “Will those citizens wishing to speak in favor of political challengers to Sanchez and Morris be allowed equal time?”
What do you think the response was from the County Attorney?
“The use of public meeting comment period for political endorsement purposes is a complex issue worthy of further review,” McCormack replied. “Commissioner Bennett had asked that I review this issue, as well, for guidance at future meetings.”
Now, if an “outsider” like me, or any other citizen, were to rise to challenge the chair or commissioner’s re-election, do you think I would have been allowed to continue and be invited to speak for three more minutes, or do you think I would have been ordered removed from the meeting?