OUR VIEW: Public meetings aren’t courts of law

The St. Augustine Record

OUR VIEW: Public meetings aren’t courts of law

Posted: March 11, 2012 – 1:40am

At a recent St. Johns County Commission meeting on a land-use issue, a request was made by the project’s attorneys to cross-examine citizen speakers about their comments. Wisely, the request was not pursued after a “sidebar” discussion with county officials.

Good for them. This was a rezoning hearing where anyone can comment to the commission before it votes. Cross-examination by a lawyer is not part of the public comment process and should not be, in our opinion.

The First Amendment protects the right of free speech. Government boards are the place where that protection needs always to be top of mind. And on this Sunshine Sunday — where open government is celebrated nationwide, it is a good time to remind everyone of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

At last Tuesday’s Commission meeting, the potential for writing a rule to prohibit cross-examination was discussed. After discussion, commissioners agreed there was no need for an additional rule. Instead it agreed that the County Commission Chair will step in when necessary to protect the rights of citizens to speak unfettered at public hearings. There are times when the meeting might be quasi-judicial but other rules govern that process. The aforementioned incident was the typical public comment that happens routinely on a proposed project and should never be stifled.

The commission, like other public boards, has public comment procedures. As an example, a speaker gets a limited amount of time, usually three minutes, and cannot address individual commissioners or staff with their comments. Above all, one must abide by the county’s civility rule. County Commissioners can choose to respond and ask further questions if they want to. Sometimes they do. In hearing some of the comments, there are times when it is best not to respond.

It is not always easy to let the public speak. In this legislative session, we have seen for the second year in a row, an effort by Sen. Joe Negron to get a clause into Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law to strengthen the right to public comment. Surprisingly, there are those who oppose this and have been successful in keeping it out of the law so far.

Public comment is implied in the Sunshine Law but it is not required. And the First District Court of Appeal made that point in a ruling two years ago in a Pensacola case. In fact, the court said the public had no right to “interfere” in the decision-making process. We’re still appalled at that viewpoint.

Fortunately local boards regard public comment as key to their decision-making in the best interests of their constituents. That’s why it is so important to protect public speakers from unnecessary, aggressive cross-examination tactics.

Public comment should not turn into courtroom cross-examinations. Public meetings aren’t courts of law.

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