Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
August 6, 2015 2:49 p.m.
During a workshop held on July 7, 2015, Fernandina Beach City Commissioners (FBCC) decided to uphold a rule regarding public input. According to City Attorney Tammi Bach, who quoted from FBCC rules of procedure adopted by a previous commission, people desiring to speak to the commissioners during meetings must complete and submit a request to speak form no later than 15 minutes into the meeting. No timely form submission – no ability to speak.
After more than a half hour of discussion and public input during their August 4, 2015 Regular Meeting, the FBCC rescinded this rule. The City Attorney will revise the rules of procedure to reflect this change.
Before the FBCC discussed the item, Mayor Boner recognized members of the public, who scolded the commissioners on both the current policy and their seeming arbitrariness in enforcing it. Five audience members, including this reporter, spoke to the issue.
Roy G. Smith, candidate for FBCC Group 4, cited an apparent contradiction in the written policy, which limited speakers to 3 minutes for items not on the agenda, but provided no limits for the number of times a person could speak on agenda items.
Philip Chapman, who had spoken about this issue at previous meetings, once again spoke. He said that in going back through videos of commission meetings, it was apparent that some people have never been limited to 3 minutes, as the rules specify. “Their time just keeps going and going,” he said, “while with other people you hear beep-beep-beep (from the timer).” He cited the mayor’s exceptions to the rules. He said, “If you are going to have rules, they have to be applied to every person.” He asked commissioners to liberalize the rules so that members of the public can more easily be recognized. “This is how you get people more involved in politics,” he said, adding, “It’s our constitutional right to be able to speak to our government.”
Julie Ferreira spoke next. “I urge you in consideration of this issue to try to be as inclusive as possible for the citizens who do want to come before the commission and speak.” She cited a personal experience during a recent meeting when she arrived late to a packed house and found herself unable to gain recognition to speak. She said that was the first time she had ever seen the 15-minute rule invoked. She urged the commission to give consideration to the plight of those who for reasons of work or personal circumstances cannot arrive within 15 minutes of the start of a meeting.
Boner asked for and received a consensus of the commission to allow local attorney Clinch Kavanaugh, who had not signed up in the required time period, to speak on the matter. Kavanaugh, a candidate for City Commission Group 5, had been vocal both at the podium and from his seat in the audience on this issue during the workshops that preceded the Regular Meeting and the meeting itself. An agitated Kavanaugh used his hands to accentuate his points. “I’ll say again,” he said, “that every citizen here has a right to express his opinion. It doesn’t matter if it is formal or informal. They have a right to participate. You can’t restrict that right. That’s exactly what you are doing, Mr. Mayor, and you apply it arbitrarily and capriciously and it is just flat illegal.” His voice rose as he continued, “Just go to your Sunshine Manual. I told you to read page 42 … did you read it, Johnny?”
Vice Mayor Johnny Miller told Kavanaugh that he was to address his remark to the entire commission, not individual commissioners. Kavanaugh replied, “I’ll address whoever I want.” Boner read the rule, and Kavanaugh replied, “I have a right to speak at meetings.” Boner agreed, but Kavanaugh continued, “No, I don’t. You’re saying I can’t participate unless I come in 15 minutes earlier and submit a form. I didn’t even have an agenda. I didn’t know this item was on the agenda. This is flat illegal, but you keep doing it. And you don’t even go and read the Sunshine Manual. I don’t understand that. It’s incomprehensible to me as a lawyer and a citizen. Just follow the law. If you follow the law, life is just so simple.”
Commissioner Robin Lentz asked City Attorney Tammi Bach to clarify the Sunshine Law requirements. Bach said, “The public has a right to participate in meetings and attend meetings, but rules of decorum and having time limits for speakers, etc. is well established in law, as long as we notify the public what the rules are.” She noted that there might be special rules for a meeting, as long as they are announced publicly. She said that while it falls to her to set the timer, sometimes she gets distracted and fails to do so. “There is nothing that we are doing that violates the law,” she stated.
Commissioner Tim Poynter said, “We want people to speak. We want them to get involved.” He cited his experience on a previous commission when the mayor would recognize people who wanted to speak and let them fill out a form after speaking. “That seemed to work well to get people’s points across. People were still limited to 3 minutes and had to fill out the form. … These are important topics, and we want to get peoples thoughts and feelings. I know I feel more comfortable when I hear people from the community speak. I think we should make it less onerous and more inclusive.”
Mayor Boner said it’s easy to make mistakes, and he tries to have a sense of humor about it. He added that signing up in advance helps him organize speakers. He said it is helpful to take public input before commissioners make motions.
Commissioner Pat Gass said that her only real problem with the 15-minute rule was the lack of consistency in which it has been applied. Gass cited the availability of the agenda, which contains the speaker rules. She went on to express her problem with the manner in which debate is conducted. She said that current procedures compared with Robert’s Rules of Order, which the commission generally follows, causes great confusion for both commissioners and the public. She said, “I would like us to either do one or the other. But whichever one we do, I’d like us to do it consistently, every time, all the time, in order to be fair to everyone across the board.”
Boner recognized City Manager Joe Gerrity, who said, “I’ve really tried to keep my mouth shut on this because it’s your meeting. I’m going to tell you that I have been sitting up here for 3 years—and you are not going to like what I say—but these meetings are chaotic. They are absolute chaos. There is no order—and I’m not picking on you (Boner) because I have served with 3 mayors. There are no parliamentary rules of procedure in place; it’s willy-nilly, and ‘what I feel like’, and ‘what the rest of the commission feels like.’ That’s not the way to run a meeting. You’ve got Robert’s Rules, which is a worldwide guide of accepted procedure. … We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. … There’s a lot of unnecessary things that go on here that prolong the meeting. It really shouldn’t. It takes the focus off the business of what you all are trying to accomplish.”
Vice Mayor Johnny Miller quoted from page 42 of the Sunshine Manual: “’Maintaining order and decorum at meetings does not interfere with a person’s right to speak.’ I really don’t care how long meetings go. If somebody has something to say, it’s kind of our duty to be here to listen. … If it becomes excessive the mayor can gavel it. … I’m ok with people being able to speak at any time during the meeting.”
Commissioner Robin Lentz said that she didn’t really have a problem with accepting a speaker’s form more than 15 minutes after the meeting starts, adding, “But the school teacher in me says the procedure notice is posted, you can email the clerk if you can’t get here on time. Part of me is tired of excuses. I’m okay with getting rid of the 15-minute rule.” But she asked when and why the FBCC stopped following Robert’s Rules.
Bach said the change was made in 2009 to have input and discussion before a motion and second. In 2012 the FBCC again changed how an amendment was made, differing from Robert’s Rules. Poynter agreed with the change simplifying the amendment process, adding, “All in all, I think our meetings go pretty well, if they are consistent. But so many people are concerned about public input. In retrospect, I want to get as many people to speak as possible. If there is something they are passionate about, I think they should be heard. I just want to change [the 15 minute rule] so they can speak.”
Miller agreed with Poynter, saying that if people have been watching the meeting at home, they should be able to arrive late to be heard on an item. Gass agreed, citing examples in the past of people coming in from home to speak. She said that she just wanted to avoid extended back-and-forth exchanges between people and the FBCC. That sets up a situation, she opined, that allows people to browbeat the commission until they give in.
Boner suggested a procedural change to require people to fill out a form before a specific agenda item.
With that suggestion, this reporter, who had not filled out a form to speak, asked to be recognized. She reminded commissioners that in earlier times there was no form requirement. Rather, speakers signed in at the podium on a log sheet. The purpose of signing in was to provide correct spelling of names for the clerk in transcribing the minutes. Thamm suggested that asking each speaker to spell his/her name before addressing the commission could eliminate even that.
Commissioner Lentz tried to refocus the discussion. She said, “I think the real debate we are having tonight has to do with the 15 minute rule. Can we get back to that?”
It was the consensus of the commission that the city attorney revise the procedural rules to eliminate the 15-minute rule. She also agreed to clarify the rules with respect to the point raised by Mr. Smith. Bach said, “Something we should probably put into our rules, following Robert’s Rules, is that you require a motion and a second before having discussion. You don’t have to, but I’m suggesting that. If there is no interest in doing that, we’ll continue the way we have with public input after an item is read but before a motion.”
Mayor Boner recognized Commissioner Gass. “The first problem,” Gass said pointing to the commissioners’ desk “is what goes on up here. We need to seek recognition, don’t interrupt or talk over other commissioners, take our turns. By the way, since you (the Mayor) do not have a light, that means you go last. Second, if we make a motion and a second, and you in the audience have a problem, that’s the time for you to get up and speak.” She suggested that if the audience sees via body language that the commission is going to vote in their favor, there is no reason to get up to speak. She endorsed Bach’s suggestion of holding discussion after a motion and a second.
Lentz said she preferred the current procedure that allows people to speak before a motion in order to get a better feel for how the public feels before deciding whether a motion is or is not in order.
Miller said, “I would like to run our meetings the same way I think we run our town. I always thought we were laid back, friendly, open to more information. But we do need order, otherwise it would be pure bedlam if people could get up and speak when they want. I think the mood we’ve seen in the room tonight is what I’d like to see more of. People have a question, they raise their hand, get up to speak. That’s what I see us as a community doing. I want to be that kind of community. We say that we are a friendly, open community and that we want people involved. But then every other Tuesday, the rules kick in.”
Gass responded to Lentz’ earlier comment saying, “Lots of times I am not in favor of an item, but I will move or second it so that we can have discussion. [Making or seconding a motion] just means that it is a subject worth talking about.”
After a bit more discussion, Gass moved and Lentz seconded doing away with the 15-minute rule. The item passed unanimously. City Attorney Bach then asked if this was the only change she should make to procedures. The commission agreed.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.