Our Commissioners seem a bit confused when it comes to the right of the public to speak at BOCC meetings. And then, there’s an element of arrogance that needs to be taken down a few notches.
Unfortunately, governments at all levels have a habit of ignoring objective law, or equal rights under the law. Then tend to violate individual rights while granting special rights and privileges to their favored special interest groups. An important role of government is to protect rights equally and not to diminish them. The BOCC recently revised a public speaking ordinance that suppresses, by limiting the opinions of those they do not consider to be privileged or equal. This effectively grants monopoly power to their favored associations.
The general public has an “inalienable right to be present and to be heard” at most public government meetings, except in certain limited circumstances. Florida law does not give anyone the right to speak at public meetings about unrelated board agenda issues. Equally important is that the law does not specifically restrict the subjects that people may wish to address either. One reason is that citizens also have the right to speak about issues that will be voted on at a later date. Fortunately, most county commissions willingly allow their constituents to speak about unrelated issues.
Commissioner Ron Kitchen, at the March 28th BOCC meeting stated: “Years ago you were not allowed to speak at county commission meetings. What [you] had to say wasn’t important because…this is where the commission do their business not you.” “We’ve changed all that.”
Our BOCC did not change “all that,” as Commissioner Kitchen incorrectly stated. The section that changed “all that” is found in Article 1, 24(b) of the Florida Constitution. It is a constitutionally protected right. Furthermore, the only legitimate business that Commissioners have happens to be the people’s business.
Florida statute 286.0114, Subsection (4) grants very limited powers to local governments when it comes to regulating public input. Locally, public speaking time, procedures, and forms are in place according to the statute. What’s confusing to me however, is that the statute clearly treats an individual, a group, faction and an organization equally without granting special privileges to anyone of them. Our BOCC apparently disagrees.
The BOCC approved giving state registered associations five minutes to address the board only on “matters related for which the purpose of the organization was formed.” An individual, a group and a faction were given three minutes. So why would the BOCC grant state registered associations extra public input time, an extra privilege, if the law does not?
Based on my interpretation, limiting what an association can speak about is also contrary to the intent of the statute because organizations also have a constitutionally protected right to comment on all issues that will be voted on at each public meeting, even if it’s unrelated to the purpose of their organization. Section 286.0114, Subsection (4) does not give any board or commission the constitutional authority to change the statute.
This decision can also impede an opportunity for the individual, group and faction to change the status quo by limiting their speaking time to three minutes. They will have less time to speak against an issue, for example, than state registered associations that may want an action to pass. This could be construed as depriving the majority of the population of their constitutionally protects rights by diminishing their standing in the community. The individual, a faction and a group are being penalized because they are not state registered associations.
To allow only state registered associations extra speaking time could be discriminatory, because the law is not being applied fairly and equitably to all. The outcome here, intentionally or not, is to only allow a legal entity, one that has legal standing through association, and/or political clout extra time to address the board. An unfair advantage. What’s interesting here is that there are more individuals, groups and political factions that are larger in numbers than individual associations.
The BOCC has the power to make exceptions and grant a speaker extra input time if the subject or situation warrants it – and this is done often. So, why write an ordinance that limits specific segments of the population when they have the power to change the rules as they go along? They need to remember that in order to provide fundamental fairness, everyone should be treated equally, both when creating procedures and in the substance of the law.
Author - Edna Mattos
Edna is from New York City and moved to Citrus County in 2003. She has worked for Fortune 500 companies and was the Founder of the Citrus County Tea Party