Florida Senate approves Negron bill clarifying public’s right to comment in meetings
TALLAHASSEE — The state Senate unanimously agreed Tuesday that under Florida law, public meeting attendees should have a fair shot to voice their opinions.
Sen. Joe Negron‘s SB 206, which cleared the Senate 40-0 without debate or drama, would give the public the “reasonable” right to testify during most public meetings.
Without Negron’s bill, there technically isn’t a right to speak at meetings spelled out in statute or the Florida Constitution — a point noted in two District Courts of Appeal decisions. The proposal would clarify that governments can’t simply shut down public comment, but they can still keep set-up limits to keep control of their meetings.
“For most government bodies, this law will not change current practices,” Negron said. “It was in the Legislature’s purview to help provide a logical remedy to current public meeting policies, and that’s just what we’ve done.”
The bill would let boards take action without the public weighing in during emergencies — for example, when hurricanes and other natural disasters strike. Boards could also withhold public comment during quasi-judicial or procedural actions.
The proposal allows setting limits so government bodies can get their work done in a timely manner. Officials would be able to limit how long speakers can talk, call for one speaker to sum up the sentiments of a larger group, and require certain procedures for how residents declare that they want to speak — for example, using writing their names and/or stances on slips of paper.
If a someone successfully brings a case against a board that won’t allow public comment, that government body would have to pay any related attorney’s fees. If the case fails, the other party has to pay those fees.
The bill would cover state, city, county, or special district agencies and other types of commission meetings. It would not apply to state legislative matters, however. For example, House or Senate floor discussion is limited to the chamber’s members.
Negron threw out a provision he originally included in the bill that would have nullified government actions if a board was found guilty of withholding public comment.
The action now moves to the House, where companion bill HB 355 by Martin Kiar, D-Davie, has one more committee stop to go. Negron said he’s been contacting House members to get the bipartisan bill moving along quicker in that chamber.
The 1st District Court of Appeal in 2010 rejected complaints by two citizens that Pensacola’s Maritime Park Associates, a local governmental body in the Panhandle, violated the sunshine law by refusing to let them speak at a public meeting.
The Florida Supreme Court subsequently refused to consider the citizens’ appeal. The 5th District Court of Appeal made a similar ruling involving a St. Johns Water Management District case in October.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, applauded the measure and said she hopes to see the House bill pick up speed.
HOW THEY VOTED
SB 206 Public Meetings: Spells out a right to speak for public meeting attendees in most situations.
Joe Negron: Yes
Mike Haridopolos: Yes
J.D. Alexander: Yes