Citizens do not have the right to speak before a public board or commission takes official action, according to Florida’s Constitution. Though Florida citizens have a right to access public records and meetings, they do not have a right to be heard before governmental bodies take official action any given proposal. This means that city council members, county commissioners and other officials could vote on issues without letting citizens have their say.
But two bills before the Florida Legislature this year could change that. Senate Bill 50, sponsored by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, would allow the public a “reasonable opportunity” to be heard before officials take action. Negron is on his third attempt to change the law since 2011. Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Wesley, has proposed similar legislation, House Bill 23.
Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said the bills would restore a fundamental constitutional right to the people of Florida, “the right to speak to their elected representatives at a public meeting.”
“Florida has a reputation for having the best open government laws in the country,” said Petersen, who contrasted the right to access records and meetings with a recent nationwide survey by the State Integrity Investigation that ranked Florida a D+ for the “effectiveness” of its public records law. “Transparency is what the government provides and access is what you have a right to.”
Jennifer Ator, a Miami Springs council member, has made open government an issue in her current campaign for city mayor. “I firmly oppose not noticing and not allowing residents and opportunity to speak prior to voting on an item,” Ator said. “Too often items are brought to the council without proper notice of the item and then voted on without allowing residents to speak.”
“The objections to notice and reasonable opportunity to speak is that if you tell people they will object and nothing will get done,” said Ator, who has recently blogged about open government at a local level. “I believe that the residents are smarter than that and with a little bit of education, and truly open government, you can explain why decisions were made to the community.”
Ator, who is also an attorney, is disappointed when colleagues “stop discussions or figure out a work around to get what they want without providing notice, having discussion, and having a vote.” Last December, Ator met resistance from the Miami Springs City Council after she proposed passing an ethics ordinance and putting a citizen’s bill of rights on the ballot. Both measures died without a second.
One longtime Miami Springs resident agrees with Ator. “That is a contradiction to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” said Mel Johnson, a former council candidate who has challenged officials at meetings and has made public records requests to track city expenses. “It makes no sense.”
Both Negron’s and Rodrigues’s bills passed separate committees last week with unanimous support.
Theo Karantsalis is a librarian and an open government activist. He is a member of the First Amendment Foundation's Sunshine Brigade. As a freelancer for the Miami Herald, Theo writes historical and civic features related to Miami's inner city. Find him on Twitter, @springyleaks.