Will public show for debate on ban of public comments at workshops?

For new Palm Beach County Mayor Mary Lou Berger, the honeymoon lasted about 20 minutes.

At the County Commission’s Nov. 17 meeting, during the public comments segment, just after colleagues named Berger to the mostly-ceremonial post, she proposed procedural changes that not everyone likes.

Opponents might be on hand Tuesday when the commission debates those changes. Or maybe not. That’s because the meeting takes place during the day, not at night. That’s part of the issue.

What Berger proposed:

  • Eliminating the two commission meetings a year that are held at night. Two budget meetings still would be at night.
  • Eliminating public comment at commission workshops.
  • Having commissioners who plan to bring up topics in the public comment section of meetings let staff know they’re doing so and give an idea of the topic.

It’s the first two items that, not long after the Post reported them, drew four blistering reactions on the newspaper’s web page. Among them:

“Wow shutting out the public and comments with the first bang oh (sic) her gavel?? Gonna be a long year,” wrote “GardianAngel.”

Another commenter, “Ericc,” wrote, “You have to wonder about any politician who tries to reduce public input into government. Whatever happened to government OF, BY and FOR the PEOPLE?

And a comment from “GHUA” included, “Workshops seem to be the most appropriate place to hear concerns from the public before they go to ‘the meeting.’”

In a Nov. 25 letter to the editor, Patricia D. Curry of Loxahatchee bemoaned what she called an erosion of the public’s right to participate, saying, “What a shame and a stain on democracy that most all of you represent.”

Last week, Berger said this is a not a new issue.

She said that when she started in 1989 in the clerk’s office, taking minutes at the same proceedings over which she now presides, public comment wasn’t allowed in workshops. Only years later was it permitted.

Berger said workshops are just that — meetings where staff and commissioners hash out issues and learn the nuts and bolts. Commissioners then decide whether to nix the thing, send it back for more work, or put it on the agenda for their next meeting, at which as many members of the public who want can talk.

But Dan Bevarly, interim director of the University of Missouri-based National Freedom of Information Coalition, which advocates for open government, said that by the time regular meetings roll around, officials often already have made up their minds.

“It’s a formality when it gets to that point and they’ve (elected officials) lost out on the opportunity to really engage, and gauge, the citizens,” said Bevarly, who’s also an adjunct U.S. history professor at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.

Berger disagreed.

“The input of the public is important. I go into any board meeting with an open mind,” she said. “I would like to think as commissioners, we listen to both sides.”

As for night meetings, Berger said, “I just don’t see any point in it.” She said turnout at the two night meetings a year that the commission currently schedules often is light.

“If an item that is on the agenda is important to the people, they come to the meeting, whenever it is,” Berger said.

In fact, she said, many of the constituents in her southwest Palm Beach County district are seniors who cannot drive up to West Palm Beach at night.

“I’m going to go to the way things were done in the past to see if what’s old is new again,” she said. “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and we’ll change it.”

Berger, meanwhile, is not alone.

The Post surveyed Palm Beach County’s 38 municipalities about public comments; 31 responded. All 31 permit comment during meetings, most for three minutes, in line with Florida Statute 286.0114.

But when it comes to workshops, six — Atlantis, Juno Beach, Royal Palm Beach, South Palm Beach, Wellington and West Palm Beach — don’t allow comments. Five others — Lake Worth, Delray Beach, Lantana, Palm Beach Shores and Riviera Beach — allow comments only at board members’ discretion.

Two don’t hold workshops at all.

But the rest, 18 municipalities, allow comments at workshops. Sixteen set time limits of three or five minutes, but two small towns — Hypoluxo and Ocean Ridge — allow public comments without any set limit at their workshops.

The Palm Beach County League of Cities has no position on how local governments run their meetings, Executive Director Richard Radcliffe said.

In the 1990s, Boca Raton Mayor Carol Hansen often let people speak for as long as they wanted. One night meeting ended after 2 a.m.

Comments became limited under her successor, Steven Abrams, now one of Berger’s colleagues on the County Commission: Steven Abrams.

He recalls arguing in Boca Raton that limitless speaking by some limited the rights of others.

“If you let people speak for as long as they want, there are other people who wish to speak who are not able to, and then leave the meeting,” he said last week.

Abrams said if he and colleagues end up adopting Berger’s rules, they would “as a principle, maintain flexibility and give the chair a lot of discretion.”

But, he said, “Any decision of the chair, on anything, is always subject to the board.”

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