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Updated: 06/05/2013 11:05:36PM

Protecting your right to speak

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One of the better measures to come out of the 2013 session of the Florida Legislature is Senate Bill 50, popularly known as the Right To Speak Bill.

We hope that local governments in Polk County will be quick to implement it, and that citizens will take advantage of its provisions.

We have often commended local governments in our communities for their responsiveness to their constituents.

The chances that Joe and Minnie Lunchbucket can propose a bill that will make its way through Congress, or even the state Legislature, and become law are limited.

But when it comes to city commissions, county commissions, and school boards — what we have called “friends and neighbors government” — the chance to have an impact on government improves dramatically.

We have been critical when these agencies seek to limit or discourage public input.

As a minimum, there customarily is a place on the agenda of meetings of elected bodies for members of the public to be heard on any subject.

While some agencies make it inconvenient to exercise this right by putting that item at the end of the agenda, many encourage exercise of that right by placing the opportunity at the start of the meeting.

Putting public comment at the start of meeting makes it possible for citizens to speak up, then go about their day’s activities, rather than waiting for hours of business to be conducted before they can make a five-minute statement of their concerns.

Equally important, it ensures that constituents will be heard before, not after, action is taken.

Government junkies, a term that includes most journalists, understand the differences between work sessions and regular meetings, between ordinances and resolutions, and between first and second readings.

The average citizen doesn’t understand the distinction, and there is no reason why he should.

The First Amendment, best known for its guarantees of freedom of speech, religion, and the press, also guarantees the right of the people “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Note the absence of qualifiers about work sessions, multiple reading of ordinances, or other procedural issues.

Note further that this is a right of citizens, not a privilege granted by government.

The typical citizen exercises the right to “petition the Government” only once or twice in a lifetime, when he feels strongly about an issue, and he should not have to be an expert in government processes — or even a government junkie — to do so.

Florida’s new “Right To Speak Bill” (signed into law last week by the governor) requires that “a member of the public be given a reasonable opportunity to be heard by a board or commission before it takes official action on a proposition.”

To us, that means, as a minimum, that the public should be heard at the start, not the end, of a meeting, and should be permitted to speak on an item of business at any time, whether or not a formal public hearing is required.

The typical bureaucratic response to allowing greater access to the governmental process will be to present the worst case scenario: “But if we do that, such-and-such might happen.”

The concern should be: “If we don’t listen to our constituents at every opportunity, government will be less responsive.”

Years ago, when Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law was passed, one government attorney in Polk County met in secret with his elected body to give members a list of ways to get around the law.

Another explained the law to his board with these words: “If you think you’re cheating, you probably are.”

Which position better represents the public interest? We encourage local governments in Polk County to seek ways to implement — not restrict — the intent of the Right To Speak Bill.