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Columbia County Observer

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Meaningful Public Comment: Challenging for Lake City's Old Guard

Questioning Lake City's Power Structure: Vanessa Geroge (left), Melinda Moses (right)

LAKE CITY, FL – Meeting rules for public participation were a hot topic at last night's City Council workshop. Councilwoman Melinda Moses was not open for rules that allowed for timely public comment. No member of the public spoke in support of her old guard policy of disjointed public comments which could have speakers making comments so far in advance of an item coming up for action that the Council members would be hard pressed to remember what the public had to say.

Background

In 2013, the Florida legislature passed what came to be known as Senate Bill 50. It states in relevant part:

Members of the public shall be given a reasonable opportunity to be heard on a proposition before a board or commission. The opportunity to be heard need not occur at the same meeting at which the board or commission takes official action on the proposition if the opportunity occurs at a meeting that is during the decision-making process and is within reasonable proximity in time before the meeting at which the board or commission takes the official action. This section does not prohibit a board or commission from maintaining orderly conduct or proper decorum in a public meeting. The opportunity to be heard is subject to rules or policies adopted by the board or commission, as provided in subsection (4).

Before SB50 was passed, many communities urged the public to be involved and speak up at public meetings. However, there were those that did everything they could to stifle meaningful public participation. SB50 was enacted to give those citizens an opportunity to be heard.

Councilwoman Melinda Moses:  Moving Lake City Backwards

Councilwoman Moses suggested stacking all public comments at the beginning of the meeting. A speaker would get five minutes to address every item on the agenda, both consent and regular agenda items.

If a speaker asked for clarification on an item and had three other items, it would be possible that the explanation could consume the speaker's allotted time.

Councilman Greene suggested having speakers address the items as they came up on the agenda. This is similar to what they do across the street at the County.

When Councilwoman Moses balked, Councilman Greene backtracked.

Councilmen Hill and Jefferson were silent. Mayor Witt preferred all comments at the beginning.

As speakers came to the microphone at the conclusion of the meeting, none thought the Council's recommendation of frontloading all public comment was worthwhile.

Former City Council candidate Vanessa George questioned Councilwoman Moses. "Ms. Moses, you were sayin' everybody should just comment on everything on the agenda first, correct?"

Councilwoman Moses responded, "Uh-huh."

Ms. George, "Now, that does not make any sense to me."

Mayor Witt asked, "What other groups do it that way?"

Ms. George answered, "I'm not concerned with any other group. I'm concerned with us right now."

Ms. George said that everybody should be on the same issue at the same time.

She continued, "What I am suggesting is that whatever issue you're talking about, open it up after your discussion to let the public speak, and then you move on."

Former City Councilman Glenel Bowden said he wanted his discussions with the Council to be in public at the Council meetings.

Mayor Witt said he could meet with him in private.

Mr. Bowden responded, "These private meetings don't work too good for me. I like witnesses; I meet with you and then all of a sudden the discussion gets sideways. We in the public should be able to say what we want to say without being offensive."

Mr. Bowden said, "Don't create a policy that discourages public participation."

Long time City resident Sandra Smith said, "Everybody's here because they care. These are the people who are willing to turn up... You're cutting off the very people you're supposed to be serving."

Former school board member Linard Johnson told the Council, "It's 2019 now. Everybody wants to be included and everybody needs to be heard."

Mayor Witt asked for any other comments. There were none.

There will be more workshops.

Mayor Witt thanked everyone for their participation and adjourned the meeting.

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