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Columbia County Observer

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Columbia County Commission News

Columbia County Residents and Others Get Reprieve From More Speech Regulation


File Photo: County Manger Dale Williams

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Last night Columbia County residents got a reprieve from more restrictive speech regulation. Columbia County Florida never disappoints when it comes to devising rules restricting the rights of its citizens or others to address the County Commission. This time it was County Manager Dale Williams' turn with a little help from Chairwoman Scarlet Frisina. After the meeting, Assistant County Manager Lisa Roberts explained it was County Manager Dale Williams who came up with the new language.

The County's most recent rule required residents to appear 5 minutes before the Commission convenes to fill out a card with one's name and address and other information. If one refuses to fill out a card or is late, or shows up when the commissioners are required to appear, at 7pm, they won't be recognized and are not given a chance to fill out a card.

Law enforcement officials, who are statutorily protected from having to give their addresses are not allowed to address the Columbia County Commission as citizens if they refuse to fill out a card.

Buried in last night's consent agenda  County Manager Dale Williams, devised were a couple of rules, which no one could understand, but which all agreed were designed to restrict someone’s right to speak.

Chairwoman Scarlet Frisina allowed the item to be put on the consent agenda.

Presiding Chairman Stephen Bailey Pulls the Item For Discussion

Both the Commissioner Frisina and County Manager Williams were absent from the evening’s meeting. Vice Chair Stephen Bailey presided in Com Frisina’s absence. Your reporter asked acting Chairman Bailey to pull the item from the consent agenda for discussion, which he did.

The proposed rules appear to be the first time meeting rule changes affecting the public’s right to speak have ever been added to the consent agenda. The proposed changes were:

c.)  issues scheduled before a county appointed board shall not be scheduled on agendas for discussion by the Board of County Commission prior to action by the appointed board.

d.)  agenda items shall not be scheduled before the Board of County Commission for discussion when the speaker (or his/her business) is represented by legal counsel.

Commissioner Bailey opened the discussion asking, "Why would we want to keep someone who is represented by an attorney from coming before the board? I don't think that's right. I don't understand that?"

It was obvious that neither the County Manager Williams, nor Chairwoman Frisina sought a legal opinion on the CM Williams’ new rules.

County Attorney Marlin Feagle weighed in:  I'm not sure exactly how or why that was drafted. It is difficult to deny somebody the right to speak when they are represented by legal counsel... We've had situations come up where a speaker had a pending case against the County or at least the threat of litigation. I expect that that was why that was put in there.

Veteran County Commissioner Ronald Williams added:  Litigation could be against someone under the County umbrella. I think that is what this is sayin... We don't deny a person the right to appear before the board, but if there is legal action goin to be taken on someone under our umbrella, then we should make no comments about it, because we are held to those comments once you go to court.

The County Commission has members sitting on boards across the county and the state.

County Attorney Feagle:  If that comes up I would give you the same recommendation... I'm struggling with the wording on how far we go. Where we have members serving on a board, we probably shouldn't be discussing that. That would create a conflict. The board may weigh in on how far it wants to go with it.

Commissioner DuPree told the Board, “My thing seein this right here, I don't know how you could do it the way its wrote... Instead of sayin represented, what if it said somethin along the lines of – had declared an intent to sue – or they currently under litigation – or a threat of litigation has been given?”

District II Commissioner Rusty DePratter had nothing to say.

Commissioner Bailey asked County Attorney Feagle if he would feel better if he had more time to look at the changes and bring them back to the Commission.

No Need To Rush

County Attorney Feagle:  I don't see any need to rush into this... I just don't know if we carry it this far is to say there won't be a speaker who has on any subject pending litigation or the threat of litigation. That may be too broad, because that might cover if they are going to sue somebody in Jacksonville. I'm having trouble seeing how far we define it. I really don't have a best answer for it tonight.

Commissioner Williams asked that the item be brought back before the Board at a later date.

The Board agreed that was a good thing to do.

Updated April 24, 2012: Underlines are added and strikethroughs deleted.

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

On April 20, 2012, Rudolph Davis of Lake City wrote:

The Board of County Commissioners should never deny anyone the right to speech. The constitution should rule the board, not the board creating rules that are outside the boundary of the constitution. As Americans it is our 1st amendment right to have freedom of speech, and it does not mean we have the right to get an answer.

I would suggest to the Board of County Commissioners that they allow anyone and everyone to speak, but if someone speaking has to do with cases in litigation, or threatening litigation, then the appropriate comment from the board should be "no comment."

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On April 20, 2012, citizen49a wrote:

The Commissioners like to make a big show of pledging allegiance to the flag at the beginning of every meeting.  Maybe they should take a look at the Constitution of the republic that flag represents, specifically the first amendment to that document which states:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Now the County Commission is not Congress, of course, but since they like to make such a show of their dedication to the republic one would think they would exhibit at least an intent to abide by the principles it was founded on.

One would be wrong.  The Commission clearly deeply desires to restrict, and if possible eliminate, the practice of free speech before the them; unless  it's fawning and obsequious praise, or the obedient reports of their underlings. Given many of the activities they're involved in, it's not hard to see why they'd  prefer not to be “petitioned..for a redress of grievances."

Still, it’s nice to see that members of the bar occasionally recognize that it’s probably a little beyond the pale just to mandate further restriction of first amendment rights without at least a little discussion.

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On April 20, 2012, Jason Futch wrote:

As citizens of Columbia County, we have the right to speak before the county commission in any instance. If I win the election this year, replacing Scarlet Frisina, I will make sure that everyone has the right to speak regardless of legal obligations or not. As Rudolph said, if it was something detrimental to a current case that is going before the judge, the person speaking should still be able to speak, but the county should comment as a "no comment."

You cannot stifle the citizens, for it is against the 1st amendment. We cannot allow our local government to play Gestapo on us. This is America, not WWII Germany! We have the right to be heard, anywhere we go and wherever this flag is flown!

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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