Sally Swartz: County commission’s new rules fall flat with residents

Don’t try to control or shut off public comments at Martin County Commission meetings, residents told commissioners at a workshop last week.

Commissioners had planned the workshop — a discussion with no official action — away from TV cameras to talk about new “rules of procedure,” which commissioners adopt each year at a November organizational meeting. But residents’ complaints about secrecy moved the session back to commission chambers, where they were televised.

It’s entertaining TV, available at the county’s website, www.martin.fl.us.

Assistant County Attorney Elizabeth Lenihan prepared the proposed new rules.
Commissioner Anne Scott, a former judge who said she’s a “rule geek,” was enthusiastic about the proposal. Scott said she hoped for rules to clarify such things as how a resident gets an issue on the commission agenda, and “who gets to talk to us, when, and for how long.” She wants meetings to be more efficient and “respectful” of both residents’ and commissioners’ time.

“Lack of structure,” Scott said, “causes us to not be as effective and productive as we could be.”

A group of “stakeholders,” which included business and development representatives but no ordinary residents, were invited to help prepare the new rules.

Tuesday was the big reveal. Residents hated them. So did commissioners.
The new rules would have moved the popular 9:05 a.m. public comment period at the beginning of every meeting to a later time. But residents said they like the convenience of stopping by commission chambers to make comments before they go to work.

The new rules would end public comment during quasi-judicial hearings, such as rezonings. Residents could not “call out individual commissioners” during public comments, though commissioners could call out individual residents.

Residents would have to submit visual displays accompanying public comment for approval a week in advance of a meeting. But agendas often are not available until the Friday before a Tuesday meeting, which would make that requirement impossible to fulfill.

The rules would let the commission chair limit “repetitive” public comment and forbid residents from applauding or reacting to comments of other residents or commissioners. A bailiff enforced that rule when commissioners backed by the growth industry were in the majority.

Restricting public comments and changing rules won’t make meetings more efficient, Commissioner Sarah Heard said.

Heard, Doug Smith, John Haddox and Chairman Ed Fielding all agreed: Keep the 9:05 a.m. and 5:05 p.m. or end-of-meeting public comment periods, allow public comment during quasi-judicial hearings, and let the meeting’s chairman figure out the rest as he or she runs the meeting.

The workshop did answer one of Scott’s concerns. Residents learned they can get an item on the county agenda by contacting the county administrator or a commissioner. Or by making a three-minute presentation during a public comment period.

Anyone who has sat through hours of government meetings can sympathize with Scott’s wish to make long sessions more productive and efficient. But that’s just not the nature of democracy.

Democracy, like life, is messy. Listening to the residents is part of an elected official’s job.

No votes were taken on anything during the workshop. Lenihan said she’ll make changes commissioners suggested to the proposed new rules and bring them back to the commission for final approval.

But commissioners and residents agree that they don’t want any rule to restrict free speech at commission meetings.

Sally Swartz is a former member of The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board. Her e-mail address is [email protected] Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Sally Swartz



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