Commission delays vote on banning public comment at workshops


WHAT THE BOARD DID

The Palm Beach County Commission also took the following action Tuesday:

Shooting range: Approved buying 40 acres near 20 Mile Bend to expand a shooting range there. The property, which the South Florida Water Management District is selling to the county for $405,000, could also become the site of an all-terrain vehicle park.

Criminal Justice director: Ratified the Palm Beach County Criminal Justice Commission’s pick for executive director: Kristina Gulick, operations manager for the Palm Beach County Tax Collector since 2013.

Waterway Park: Approved a $5.2 million contract for improvements including boat ramps and a fishing pier at the 30-acre Waterway Park, adjacent to the Jonathan’s Landing neighborhood in Jupiter.

Alzheimer’s home: Gave consent to an Alzheimer’s care facility on property of the former Briger tract in Palm Beach Gardens.

Roads: Approved the county’s five-year, $303-million roads plan.

Palm Beach County commissioners Tuesday delayed action on new Mayor Mary Lou Berger’s plan to ban public comment at commission workshops.

Instead, they asked the county legal staff to give them a couple versions of a policy: an outright ban and partial ban that would allow public comment at the commission’s discretion.

The ban on public comments at workshops was one piece of a three-part proposal by Berger, which also included a requirement that commissioners alert staff of the topics they plan to discuss at the end of meetings and the elimination of a self-imposed rule that the commission have two night meetings a year.

The vote on all three had to be delayed because they were all part of one policy, but it was the public comment issue that drew fire.

Berger argued Tuesday, as she has before, that for a long time, public comment wasn’t allowed at workshops. She’s said those gatherings are designed for commissioners to be educated; they then could decide to take the issue to a general meeting, where comment is permitted.

Critics have argued, however, that many elected officials will have already made up their minds by then, something Berger denied.

“Both steps are legal and both, in my opinion, violate the spirit and intent of our Sunshine Law,” Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee-based open-government advocate, told The Palm Beach Post Monday. “Why do they get themselves elected to office if they don’t want to hear from the public?”

But Berger said Tuesday, “I would like to try it. If it works, it works.”

Commissioner Melissa McKinlay worried that if she and colleagues, at a workshop, only hear a presentation, or decide in consensus to “give direction” without a formal vote, those are issues that never come to a regular meeting, at which people could comment.

“That is something we probably should allow public comment on,” she said.

Commissioner Steven Abrams said he had the same concerns, and also worried about items that commissioners hear in workshops and decide not to forward to the general meeting.

At that point, Berger said she was “certainly flexible and happy to work with administrator,” Verdenia Baker.

Then County Attorney Denise Nieman said the wording that commissioners had directed her to craft, and on which they were set to vote, would have forbidden comment altogether.

“Since Workshops are for informational purposes only, with no official action taken other than Board direction to staff, no public comment will be accepted,” the text said.

So Berger said she’d work with Nieman and Baker to give commissioners more options and bring the issue back to the commission in January.

Commissioners Shelley Vana and Paulette Burdick did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.



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