Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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County 5 Working On New Rules: Restricting All Public Comments to Two Minutes on the Horizon

"The general public didn't have a clue what was going on."

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL –  Perennially homeless, unable to be heard from 10 feet away, lounging at County Commission meetings like they were in beach chairs, often rude and obnoxious to its citizens, supporting minimalist minutes and many times hiring folks based on their pedigree, rather than their degree, the Columbia County 5 droned on for over two hours as it looked to change its rules of procedure by modifying the St. Johns County rules. Resident Charlie Towbridge said of last Thursday's County 5/ County Attorney workshop, "The general public didn't have a clue what was going on."

The Columbia County 5 from left to right: Commissioners Ronald Williams; Rusty DePratter; Bucky Nash; Everett Phillips; Tim Murphy

The March 16, 2017 County 5 meeting was billed as an Ethics/Rules workshop/special meeting. The County wanted to make sure it had all the angles covered.

Florida's only elected county attorney, Joel Foreman, after over two years of foot dragging on needed rules changes, finally scheduled the workshop after being bushwhacked by longtime County Commissioner Ronald Williams at a County 5 meeting.

There was confusion as the meeting got underway.

The Chairman of the County 5, Ronald Williams, said he didn't have an agenda and didn't realize that the meeting was a special meeting.

Commissioner Williams asked Commissioner Everett Phillips to give the invocation. Commissioner Phillips thanked God for the "free meetin' like we're havin' today."

As usual, the intentionally inadequate sound system kept the public mostly in the dark and County Attorney Foreman did not prepare any kind of PowerPoint presentation which would have enabled the public to follow along.

Mr. Foreman announced, "Folks, I was going to put it [St. Johns County rules policy] up on the big screen so I would have been able to read it, but it's just too small.

Commissioner Williams asked for public comments before The 5 and the County Attorney began their discussions.

Charlie Towbridge      (file)

Mr. Towbridge asked if there was going to be any other opportunity for the public to comment.

Commissioner Williams replied, "No sir."

Mr. Towbridge said, "Thank you sir," and turned toward the exit.

Commissioner Murphy jumped in, "Your questions got anything to do with the special workshop?"

Mr. Towbridge answered, "Yes. It's the way the County operates."

Commissioner Williams repeated, "You can do your comments now."

Mr. Towbridge responded, "This is like the last meeting I was at. It's kinda like – ram-rodded."

Commissioner Williams dug in, "No sir. I'm offering you a opportunity to have public (comment)."

Mr. Towbridge followed up, "I thought we would have public comments during the meeting or after the meeting, when we have found out what's happening. If you shut us out of this, there is no use of us even coming here."

Commissioner Williams held his ground, "No sir. If you want to have public comment now -- you can have public comment. And then after the meeting if you want to address the board again under the two minutes, you can."

Mr. Towbridge said, "OK."

County Attorney Foreman Takes Over

Mr. Foreman explained that he provided each commissioner, through their County e-mail, 145 pages of material. "Commissioner Phillips asked me before the meeting, 'Was I supposed to read every word of that stuff?'"

Mr. Foreman continued, "I said, 'No, you're supposed to review it. You're ok.'"

Mr. Foreman announced, "I've heard from many of you about your ideas."

Mr. Foreman did not provide a list of who had what idea. None of The 5 volunteered their pre-shared ideas.

Mr. Foreman decided that Columbia County should adopt the St. Johns County Rules and Policies LINL-LINK, with some local modifications.

Commissioner Sylvester "Bucky" Nash thought that Columbia County's rules lacked "clear definitions" and St. Johns County did a better job.

Mr. Scott thought that the County should close out the agenda for new items on Tuesday the week before the meeting. That will be incorporated.

Ethics: Foreman Doesn't Want to Open Pandora's Box

Ethics didn't take up a lot of time at the Ethics/Rules workshop/special meeting.

Mr. Foreman explained, "Palm Beach County did a full blown ethics commission. I don't think that's the right way to go... I feel like it's going to open Pandora's Box."

Instead, Mr. Foreman thought ethics issues should be kept within the County 5 and he nominated himself to be the ethics investigator.

It was not clear how he would be impartial investigating some of his friends.

Mr. Foreman thought that a letter from him, after he did an investigation, would be called "strike one" in his soon-to-come ethics policy.

Commissioner Nash questioned the consequences of ethics violations.

Citizen Complaints

Presently Columbia County does not log complaints. They are sent directly to the departments.

County Manager Ben Scott said, "I don't think a citizen complaint number [hot line] is a bad idea."

Commissioner Nash doesn't want complaints logged. County Manager Scott wants complaints logged.

Citizens Who Want to Get on the Agenda

After some discussion, it appears that for a citizen to be added to the agenda it will depend on who that citizen knows. This is typical Columbia County.

Public Comment

History has shown that comments from the public make the County 5 uncomfortable and the present policy seems to be in clear contravention to what was known as Senator Joe Negron's SB 50, which gave the public the right to be heard on "a proposition" before the public body voted on it.

County Attorney Foreman said that The 5's present policy of giving the public 5 minutes to comment on all items, which at times may be over 15 items or 20 seconds per item, would stand up in Federal Court.

The St. Johns County policy, which is being rewritten by Mr. Foreman for Columbia County, gives the public 3 minutes to comment on an item. Palm Beach County, the County with the Pandora's Box Ethics Commission, gives the public 3 minutes to comment.

All counties which Mr. Foreman used as examples give the public 3 minutes to comment on a proposition before the board.

Some counties give more time

The Columbia County 5 agreed on two minutes.

After Sitting for Over Two Hours
Charlie Towbridge Finally Had His Say

Charlie Towbridge:  I heard some comments tonight, before we even got started about the screen not working; other comments about electronic voting. There are a lot of commissioners here that leaned back from their desks when they are speaking and we can't hear them out here. This is 2017. We just finished spending millions of dollars for the sound [communications] systems for the police department and the fire department. We got an antiquated sound system here... we are never going to get with the program unless we get these systems working... if you sit here [in the audience] and listen the public doesn't know what's going on. The public doesn't have a choice but to just guess at what you are saying... two minutes, I don't think that is enough -- three minutes. I think that gives the public a chance to have their say. Two minutes is too short.


Years ago Representative Elizabeth Porter, while undergoing her training for higher office as a Columbia County Commissioner and frustrated by public scrutiny, referred to Columbia County citizens as the "enflamed masses."

The "enflamed masses" stopped attending meetings, as one of the rudest and most obnoxious County Commissions in Florida did its work, with one commissioner at times offering to fight his critics.

Two minutes: even an egg gets three.

The Columbia County 5: the legend continues.

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