Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Court - Citizens don't have right to speak at government meetings

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.

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Go to You Tube Video - See Attorney Sharon Barnett before the City Council.

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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The Lake City model
The public's right to participate and the importance of public participation:

The courts have recognized the importance of public participation in open meetings. The courts of Florida on construing the law have read into the concept of an open meeting the right to be heard. The Florida Supreme Court has stated that "specified boards and commissions . . . should not be allowed to deprive the public of this inalienable right to be present and to be heard at all deliberations wherein decisions affecting the public are being made." Board of Public Instruction of Broward County v. Doran, 224 So. 2d 693, 699 (Fla. 1969). The court in this case further stated:

"The right of the public to be present and to be heard during all phases of enactments by boards and commissions is a source of strength in our country. . . . "Regardless of their good intentions, these specified boards and commission, through devious ways, should not be allowed to deprive the public of this inalienable right to be present and to be heard at all deliberations wherein decisions affecting the public are being made."

In Town of Palm Beach v. Gradison, 296 So. 2d 473, 475 (Fla. 1974), the Court spoke of a meeting as being "a marketplace of ideas, so that the governmental agency may have sufficient input from the citizens who are going to be affected by the subsequent action of the [public agency]." The Court further said,

"Governmental agencies would be deprived of the benefit of suggestions and ideas which may be advanced by the knowledgeable public." The Court in Gradison at 475 went on to state: "The taxpayer deserves an opportunity to express his views and have them considered in the decision-making process."

Wouldn't it be nice if Columbia County could see the light? ed