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Negron bill guaranteeing right to speak at public meetings dies in House

Negron bill guaranteeing right to speak at public meetings dies in House

Government officials still won’t have a legal obligation to hear from the public at open meetings after Sen. Joe Negron‘s right-to-speak proposal died in the Legislature this year.

For the second consecutive year, a push to require officials to allow public comment at most open meetings has come up short. Negron’s bill, SB 206, passed through the Senate 40-0 in mid-February, but House members never cast a floor vote on the issue.

Neither statute nor the Florida Constitution actually spells out the public’s right to speak at meetings — a point noted in two District Courts of Appeal decisions after boards shut down public comment completely. For at least another year, the state’s laws will stay silent on the topic.

“It’s very disappointing,” said Negron, R-Stuart, “but I think the incoming House speaker Will Weatherford had worked with the First Amendment Foundation and was a very strong advocate for the bill. We’ll regroup over the summer, and I may file it again next year.”

HB 355, the House companion by Davie Democratic Rep. Martin Kiar, only tallied three “nay” votes in three favorable committee stops. However, the bill never got the nod from leadership to make it on the House floor.

Kiar said he received support from both sides of the aisle, and didn’t specifically know why the proposal got killed — other than time simply ran short.

“There probably would’ve been a lot of questions on it, and I think at the end of the day, they just made a determination that they had a large agenda and there wasn’t time to bring it up,” Kiar said.

The bill would have eliminated governments’ ability to simply shut down public comment, but it still would have let officials set limits to keep meetings timely and under control. For example, officials could make decisions without hearing from residents during emergencies like hurricanes and other natural disasters. Boards could also withhold public comment during quasi-judicial or procedural actions.

Officials would be able to limit how long speakers may 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.

If someone successfully brought a case against a board that won’t allow public comment, that government body would have had to pay any related attorney’s fees. If the case fails, the other party has to pay those fees.

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 Florida Government-in-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.

The new rules would not have applied to state lawmakers’ meetings. For example, House and Senate floor sessions are limited to debate among members and don’t involve public weigh-in.

First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen said it doesn’t seem like the bill just slipped through the cracks, but couldn’t pinpoint why an unopposed bill would get the ax.

“That we would deny citizens, through inaction on the House’s part, the most basic and fundamental right in the county is kind of shocking to me,” Petersen said.

Kiar said Negron helped him push the issue on the House side before it dead-ended, effectively keeping intact governments’ legal out-clause from listening to constituents at meetings.

“It makes me very bothered to know that a local governing board can prohibit people from speaking,” Kiar said. “I just think it’s wrong.”