The courts have weighed in, the Florida Legislature followed and the Board of County Commissioners will follow suit.
The BOCC on Tuesday will consider, during a public hearing, an ordinance codifying policy on public speaking during County Commission meetings.
“This is not inconsistent with past policy,” said county attorney Jeremy Novak. “Now it will be county law.”
The ordinance would dictate that any public comment on any concern or proposition taken up by the BOCC be heard immediately after comments from staff and commissioners on the issue.
For any measure or action not on the printed agenda, public comment will be heard prior to board action and must be limited to the measure before the BOCC.
Public comment must also be directed to the chairman presiding over the BOCC meeting at the time and must not be directed at staff, individual commissioners or members of the audience.
BOCC meetings over the past year have been marked by numerous instances of individuals speaking about private citizens, in the audience and not, as well as comments directed at individual commissioners.
The ordinance provides the chairman as the focal point for comment, but also provides the chairman the authority to tell violators of the policy to immediately take a seat.
Vulgar, insulting or profane language directed at commissioners, staff or any member of the audience “shall not be tolerated” and the chairman can request, in the face of such behavior, to have law enforcement remove the person from the meeting room.
Commissioner Joanna Bryan suggested during the previous meeting that “insulting” language can be subjective and sought a clearer definition, which Novak said he would examine and bring back to the BOCC on Tuesday.
All speakers will be required to fill out a speaker’s form: in the case of an item on the agenda the form should be filled out in advance, Novak said; in the case of an item not on the agenda the form must be filled out before the meeting is adjourned.
All comments must be made at the podium after the speaker provides their name and address for the record.
Individual speakers will have three minutes for comments. A representative of an organization will be granted five minutes, but only one member of that organization will be allowed to speak.
Current policy allows a speaker three minutes, with additional minutes coming only after a majority vote of approval from the board.
Those seeking to be placed on the agenda to speak currently are provided six minutes to speak.
Under the new ordinance, comments must be limited to the action or measure being taken up at that time by the board.
BOCC meetings over the past year have also been highlighted by public comment that has frequently not pertained to a specific issue before the board or about matters and issues that are not even within the authority of the BOCC.
Public comment during public hearings or workshops will be limited to the time period set aside for public comment.
The provisions do not apply to meetings or issues taken up due to emergency situations; official acts ministerial or ceremonial in nature; or meetings exempt from the provisions under Florida law.
The ordinance follows action by the Florida Legislature this past spring which established citizen’s rights to speak.
A Florida appellate court in 2010 ruled that while Florida’s Sunshine Law required public boards or commissions to meet in a public forum – save under specific circumstances, such as discussing litigation or union negotiating strategy – the law contained no mandate on the public’s right to speak during such meetings.
There was no state law or constitutional guarantee of the public’s right to speak before a public board or commission votes on a specific issue.
The remedy, the court ruled, would be a change in law.
Beginning in 2011, State Sen. Joe Negron introduced a bill to correct that lack of “right to speak” and in 2013 Negron’s bill, including provisions in a Florida House of Representative companion, was overwhelmingly passed.
That law authorizes a board or commission to adopt “reasonable” rules to ensure orderly conduct of the meeting, but prohibits a commission or board from denying public comment on specific issues before the board during that session.
“That is a monumental shift in state law,” Novak said.