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Closing the blinds in the sunshine

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"All political power is inherent in the people." 

Article I, Section 1, Florida State Constitution

"All meetings of any collegial public body of the executive branch of state government or of any collegial public body of a county, municipality, school district, or special district, at which official acts are to be taken or at which public business of such body is to be transacted or discussed, shall be open and noticed to the public..."

Article I, Section 24 (b), Florida State Constitution

 

Both portions of the state constitution quoted above are quintessentially what makes Florida the Sunshine State in government.

Citizens in other states envy our access to government and public records. 

Lately, Levy County's Board of County Commissioners has not completely embraced the public's right to know the public's business.

A tactic -- adding an item at the last minute not on the agenda published in advance of the meeting -- has been used to subvert the public's right to know what its county officials are planning to do in their name.

Lately, if the commission is meeting you can count on one of the commissioners bringing up an item at the end of the meeting and asking fellow commissioners to allow it.

And they have been accommodating, allowing every request.

By handling their business in this fashion, citizens are unaware of the issue until the commissioners have already decided its outcome. Placing any and all items on the agenda allows our citizens to be aware of the issue and have an opportunity to have a say in the matter.

That's the reason for the agenda, to encourage citizens' attention to their government.

The non-agenda item is making a regular appearance at Levy County Commission meetings. And the items being considered are not of an emergency or last-minute nature. It is merely a tactic to address a perceived issue without giving any notice to our tax-paying, voting citizenry.

When citizens are not aware an issue will be discussed, this is an effective tactic to silence our voice. After all, if we are not notified that a particular item will be discussed, how are we to speak for or against it?

"Even though the Sunshine Law does not prohibit a board from adding topics to the agenda of a regularly noticed meeting, the Attorney General's Office has advised, "In the spirit of the Sunshine Law, the city commission should be sensitive to the community's concerns that it be allowed advance notice and, therefore, meaningful participation on controversial issues coming before the commission."

When Commissioner Marsha Drew was asked why she had on several occasions brought non-agenda items before the commission, she said she did so because if they were known in advance people would get stirred up. 

Well, isn't that what our government is about: people speaking up?

And in light of a court ruling earlier this year that the public is not guaranteed a right to speak at publicly noticed government meetings, an advance notice on an agenda would allow citizens to communicate beforehand with their representatives.

It might be recommended that the Levy commissioners follow the administrative policies for state agencies that require an agenda be prepared seven days in advance and that changes only be made for a good cause.

It's a policy that Levy County's citizens deserve. 

•••

While on the subject of non-agenda items, Commissioner Ryan Bell opened the door on tossing appointees off boards without notice by adding a non-agenda item several weeks ago. He used it to also appoint the person he wanted.

When Commissioner Drew tried the same thing, via a non-agenda item, on Tuesday the action died on a 2-2 tie. 

Some folks might think it was a case of the guys against the girl. But Bell voted with Drew, so it's not sexism.

While some might ask why it was OK for Bell and not for Drew let's not forget we have been over this before. Drew was refused when she tried replacing Thad Barber on the Planning Commission a year ago. The two commissioners who voted against her on Tuesday also voted against removing Barber then.

Their votes are as consistent as Drew's efforts to remove someone she says does not represent her or her people's views.

Of course, we would like to think it is because the public told the commissioners they did not like the way the matter was handled in Bell's case.

But it's also a reminder that the commission need only instruct its attorney to draw up a procedure for notifying appointees their services will be no longer needed and implementing an application process for every appointed position.