Editorial: Constitution commission needs a revision of its own

Florida, alone among states, allows its state constitution to be revised once every 20 years through a panel called the Constitution Revision Commission. Its 37 members are appointed from the heads of the state’s executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. The commission has the power to recommend amendments to the constitution, and then present those changes to voters. The public can approve or deny them. These are difficult-to-undo changes that must be handled with care.

The last time Florida voters OK’d a commission’s proposals was during the Lawton Chiles administration. That group understood the weight of its charge, and took pains to establish clear policies and maximize public input at every stage. Florida voters approved its findings.

Voters will have another opportunity in 2018. But things aren’t off to such an open and transparent start. Gov. Rick Scott’s choice for commission chairman, former Republican U.S. Senate candidate and real estate developer Carlos Beruff, began the process by attempting to make himself king rather than chairman. A rocky beginning bodes ill for the rest of the commission’s work.

It is in the governor’s interest to see that this ship is righted in time for a key meeting in Orlando on Tuesday.

Beruff has set things askew by seeking the power to solely decide whether or not the wider commission’s recommendations would make it to the ballot. He also wanted the right to prevent citizens from distributing literature in public areas of the Capitol or outside other meeting spaces, a shocking attempt to abridge Floridians’ First Amendment rights. He also attempted to allow secret meetings among commission members, according to 16 state organizations that have jointly objected to Beruff’s plan. The groups include the ACLU, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause Florida, the Florida Education Association and others.

Thankfully, other commission members have balked at Beruff’s inartful proposals. Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa urged that the commission re-adopt the successful and non-controversial procedural rules of the Chiles-era commission as its own. Other members have agreed. Beruff has responded aggressively, by disbanding the rules subcommittee and insisting that the full commission consider his proposed rules on Tuesday.

So who is Beruff? What’s his end game?

Beruff has a long history of stridently defying convention — and occasionally, ethics — to push his views, even as he bought influence through political contributions. As a candidate for U.S. Senate against a fellow Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio, he espoused President Donald Trump’s “America First” ideology, calling for a suspension of immigration from certain Islamic nations. He crudely referred to President Barack Obama as “an animal.” His words: “Unfortunately, for seven-and-a-half years, this animal we call president, because he’s an animal, OK — seven and a half years, has surgically and with thought and in a very smart, intelligent manner, destroyed this country …” Beruff refused to apologize for those offensive remarks.

Just as troubling was an episode that took place in 2015 on behalf of a former business partner and longtime friend, former Florida Sen. Pat Neal. Neal wanted to build four mini-mansions on pristine coastal wetlands on Perico Island in Anna Maria. As an appointee to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, Beruff should have recused himself. Instead, he voted to allow Neal to remove mangroves and build the homes, defying the recommendation of a state administrative law judge. Soon after, Beruff resigned from the water management board. Later, Neal and his family made thousands of dollars’ worth of donations to Beruff’s failed Senate campaign, Federal Elections Commission records show.

Beruff’s track record makes him a highly political, poor choice to chair the commission.

Florida’s constitution guarantees some of our most cherished rights. The Constitution Revision Commission must transcend partisan politics and handle its responsibilities with maximum public input. Instead, it has become overtly political and secretive. It’s not too late to change course.

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