Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Florida News

Court to decide public's right to speak, be heard

A Tallahassee appellate court will soon weigh in on whether Florida's Sunshine Law gives citizens the right to be participants, not merely spectators, in government meetings.

An attorney for two Pensacola activists told the First District Court of Appeal on Tuesday that Community Maritime Park Associates, an arm of the Pensacola City Council, violated the Sunshine Law by failing to let the public speak at its open meetings.

The board eventually created a public comment period, but that doesn't go far enough because it comes before the board discusses the agenda, said attorney Sharon Barnett.

"That forum does not allow any meaningful participation," she said. "It isn't really open to them. It's something they can watch on TV or on their computer screens."

In March, Escambia Circuit Judge Frank Bell tossed out the suit, saying that the law only guarantees that meetings are open to the public. The plaintiffs, LeRoy Boyd and Byron Keesler, appealed. They are asking the court to nullify the board's actions.

Hanging in the balance is a $40 million maritime museum and waterfront park that the CMPA is charged with developing. The city has already spent $2.9 million on design fees, site preparation and environmental permits, said City Manager Al Coby.

The board's attorney, Ed Fleming, points to a 1983 Florida Supreme Court decision, "Marston," in which a newspaper sued when a search committee for a University of Florida law school dean met privately.

"We hasten to reassure respondents that nothing in this decision gives the public the right to be more than spectators," the justices wrote.

If everyone is allowed to speak, CMPA meetings would drag on for hours, and it would be difficult to recruit business and civic leaders to serve on the appointed panel, Fleming said.

"I know some members who would quit," he said.

Barnett counters with a 1969 Florida Supreme Court Decision, "Doran." Parents sued when the Broward County School Board banned the public from some of its meetings.

The public has, "an inalienable right to be present and to be heard at all deliberations wherein decisions affecting the public are being made," the justices wrote.

"Participatory democracy, as a concept, is that the more ideas you get, the better," she said.

Local boards could easily establish rules and limit the amount of time for public comment, Barnett said.

Barbara Petersen, President of the First Amendment Foundation, agrees.

"The right to speak is the number one complaint I get all across the state," Petersen said. "This is our government, we elect these people to represent us. How are they supposed to know what we want if they don't allow us to speak?"

This article originally appeared in the Florida Capital News and can be seen here.


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