We were each astounded when our City Attorney, approached us during the course of our service as mayors of the nearby cities of Lake Helen and Sanford and advised us that the courts had ruled that, although the Sunshine Law requires that meetings be open to the public, the Law does not give the public the right to speak at the meetings. We were fortunate to have the same legal counsel who advised us that he had drafted an ordinance which, if enacted by our city commissions, would covenant with our citizens that they would always have the right to speak.
Now, although we have only recently come into contact with one another, we have each lead our city commissions to enact the ordinance that our common City Attorney presented to us. We were doubly pleased when our cities received recognition by winning an open government award for passing our local laws which ensure people’s ability to speak at city meetings. Our cities, which lie in the abutting counties of Volusia and Seminole, received the Pete Weitzel/Friend of the First Amendment Award which was awarded by the First Amendment Foundation to our cities during the recent annual meeting of the Florida Press Association and Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in Tallahassee.
Our cities had watched “right-to-speak” laws die in the Florida Legislature during the 2011 Legislative Session and we were determined to make certain that our citizens had no doubt that they would be able to speak to our city commissions when meeting at our city halls. As the heads of local governments, we know that our municipal governments are the closest level of government to the people. We wanted to ensure that the provisions of the Constitution of the State of Florida at Article I, Section 5 which state that “[t]he people shall have the right peaceably to assemble, to instruct their representatives, and to petition for redress of grievances” were given full meaning in our communities. We wanted to make certain that our citizens felt at home in the “people’s houses” – – our city halls.
As we approach Sunshine Week 2012 (March 11-17) we hold our cities out with pride in that our elected officials have expressed a commitment to the citizens who entrusted them with governing their cities. Our citizens appreciated being advised by our city commissions that we are committed to the principle of transparent and open government and to protect the individual right declared to exist in Article I, Section 24(b) of the Constitution of the State of Florida which establishes the State’s public policy regarding access to government meetings.
Our ordinances clearly state that our city commissions express their “. . . firm commitment to ensure that the rights of citizens to orally express their views are honored and protected. All meetings and hearings of the City Commission and all meetings of board and commissions, by whatever name, shall include an opportunity for members of the public to be heard before or during consideration of any agenda item on which an official act will be taken . . . . . No resolution, rule, or formal action shall be considered binding except as taken or made at such meeting.” We also affirm our “. . . firm commitment to ensure that the rights of those who speak or otherwise publish their views as citizens or members of the press are honored and protected.” Lastly we expressed our “. . . firm commitment to ensure that the public may fully participate in all of its hearings, meetings, processes, programs and operations.”
In essence we affirmed the sound public policy of Florida’s “Government in the Sunshine Law”. We concluded that the fact that the State Constitution and the Florida Statutes are both silent concerning whether citizens have a right to be heard at public meetings would not ever work against the will of our citizens to express their views at our meetings.
We understand that there is legislation being considered by the Florida Legislature (Senate Bill 206 and House Bill 355 at present) which would require boards or commissions of state executive agencies or authorities and local agencies or authorities to provide members of the public a reasonable opportunity to be heard on items of significant interest at, or proximately before, meetings where official action is taken. Regardless whether State legislation passes, we will always ensure that our citizens know that their elected public officials are committed to hearing from them – – every day of the year and not just during Sunshine Week.