By Steve Miller
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Gadflies can rejoice. A bill giving the public the legal assurance to speak on measures and issues before local boards, commissions and panels took effect Oct. 1.
While most would think public bodies allow the public ample time to speak – it’s usually right there in the agenda – a state appellate court ruled in 2010 that “open to the public” does not mean the right to speak at a meeting. The state’s Supreme Court declined to hear the case and left open a hole in the state’s transparency law, asserting that the public has no right to speak at public meetings.
The case was the catalyst for the new bill, which was introduced by Republican State Sen. Senator Joe Negron. While the measure passed the Senate 40-0, there were two dissenters in the house, Reps. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens, and John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach.
“It isn’t explicit enough,” Watson said. She felt the wording of the bill would limit, rather than broaden, the ability of the individual to address an issue. “This is giving a spokesman of a group the right to address a board, not an individual,” Watson said.
Tobia called it “reactionary legislation” and felt the measure would give parties who were not connected to an issue a right to weigh in regardless. And it also opens the door to filibuster-esque diatribes.
“I don’t have a problem with everyone having a voice,” he said. “But it should be within reason. I wasn’t willing to give total authority to an individual who may not have any stake in an issue.”
Tobia said he attempted to amend the bill to require speakers to disclose their interests in a pending action or if they were being paid by someone to speak, but his idea got no traction.
This week, Lewis, Longman & Walker, a Tallahassee law firm/lobbying house sent a memo to its numerous clients advising them of the new law and urging them to make sure they have the right policies on board.
“While the Sunshine Law has long required meetings boards or commissions to be open to the public, the law has not heretofore guaranteed a right to participate. Except for a few limited exceptions, the law expands the Sunshine Law in a manner that guarantees the right the public to be heard at meetings governmental bodies.”
The missive urges these bodies to make sure they have the right policy in place, and warns that “the law is enforceable by injunction in circuit court and if a court determines that a board or commission took any action in violation of section 286.0114, the court will assess attorney’s fees against the board or commission.”
Among the clients was the Holmes Beach Commission, which will have to change its city code because the order of the agenda is spelled out, like may on the state, to allow the public to only comment at the start of each meeting.
According to a brief in the Anna Maria Island Sun, the commission’s chair proposed that citizens be allowed to speak on each item as it is discussed. The notion cold change the structure of public meetings were this to be enacted widely. County commissions and city councils statewide have provisions for public comment on their agendas.