Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Florida News

Citizen Input Rejected
Courts give public right to be present, but not heard

The Florida Supreme Court has denied a request for review of a locally filed Sunshine Law case, a decision that will have statewide implications.

Fla. justices refuse to hear open meetings case 10/26/10
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Court to decide public's right to speak, be heard 2/19/2010

In 2009, Pensacola residents Byron Keesler and LeRoy Boyd, who died last month, filed a lawsuit against the Community Maritime Park Associates board, claiming the board violated Florida's Sunshine Law when it did not give citizens the right to participate in government meetings.

Previous lower-court rulings, in the CMPA's favor, have claimed that the Sunshine Law only gives the public the right to be present — but not to speak — at public meetings.

Now the state Supreme Court has refused to review the case, which upholds the previous rulings.

"This will mean no Floridian has the right to speak to the County Commission, City Council, School Board, Water Management District or any other public body under the Sunshine Law," said Pensacola attorney Sharon Barnett, who represented the plaintiffs in the case.

"For the first time in more than 40 years in Florida, the courts have declined to construe the law broadly in the public's interest. This is a radical shift in Sunshine Law jurisprudence."

In March 2009, Escambia Circuit Judge Frank Bell tossed out the lawsuit, saying that the law only guarantees that meetings are open to the public. In March 2010, a Tallahassee appellate court upheld that ruling.

Barnett petitioned the Florida Supreme Court to review the case, and it was recently denied.

Jim Rhea, an attorney for the Florida First Amendment Foundation, was disappointed to hear of the denial.

"We have one board member who calls it the 'Marcel Marceau' ruling, where all you are allowed to do is sit there silently," Rhea said, referring to the legendary mime.

"Hopefully, members of collegial bodies around the state will realize the importance of public participation; by that I mean public input. I suspect there will be some who will use this as a means of shutting down such input."

Ed Fleming, the CMPA's attorney, was pleased with the decision.

"The ruling comes as no surprise," Fleming said. "The lawsuit by Mr. Keesler and group was, from its inception, without merit in fact or law. Florida's statute, the broadest of any I have seen in any state, does not, and never has, given the public the right to jump in and debate the issues during the meetings."

"If someone wants that right, they need to run for office and have that right delegated to them as a representative of the people."

Despite the court's ruling, there is one matter outstanding.

A motion in the trial court for attorneys' fees is pending against Keesler and Barnett. However, Fleming said he is not likely to pursue the fees.

Since the suit was filed, the CMPA evolved into allowing public comment, not only at the beginning of the meeting but while issues are being discussed.

Some CMPA members have said that the board will continue to offer a public-comment period, regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit. 

This article originally appeared in the pjn.com and can be seen here.

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