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News Story
Updated: 10/04/2013 06:46:35PM

Your government

will hear you (briefly)

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S.L. Frisbie

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Promising to listen to constituents is a frequent commitment made by candidates for public office.

In fact, I don’t remember ever hearing a single candidate campaign on a platform of: “If elected, I am not interested in hearing from you, because I am smarter than you and I don’t want to waste my time listening to your complaints.”

I haven’t even heard a campaign promise that: “If elected, I will listen to you for three minutes every other week.”

Yet local government agencies, with few exceptions, seem intent on figuring out how to limit, rather than encourage, public input.

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Somehow, the Florida Legislature deemed it necessary to enact Senate Bill 50, picturesquely dubbed the “Anti-Shushing Bill,” by a vote of 40-0 in the Senate, and 113-2 in the House.

It requires that “a member of the public be given a reasonable opportunity to be heard by a board or commission before it takes official action on a proposition.”

I have freely confessed that I am a government junkie, having covered the Bartow City Commission for 46 years, and other elected bodies for shorter times: the Lake Wales and Fort Meade City Commissions; the Polk and Leon County Commissions; the Polk and Leon County School Boards; and an assortment of non-elected but important advisory and regulatory boards.

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Elected officials sometimes lament that they don’t know how the public feels about an issue. But most discussions about public access to the podium at government meetings focus on how to limit public comment.

Almost all bodies establish time limits for public comments (Bartow allows three minutes, some boards allow five). A few even schedule public comment at the end of a meeting, ensuring maximum inconvenience for the public and minimum impact, since all items of business already have been disposed of.

Others limit public input only to occasions when a formal public hearing is required, usually immediately prior to final action.

A political reality check: by the time an item comes up for final action, decisions have been made, and positions are all but cast in stone. If you want to have meaningful impact on an issue, you have to make your voice heard early in the process.

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Bartow’s Gerald Cochran is the poster boy (OK, he’s actually the poster 70-something) for public comment.

For several decades, Gerald has attended almost every meeting of the Bartow City Commission, voicing his criticism of city commissioners, city managers, and city government in general.

Even he is not certain how many times he has run for election to the commission, though his won-lost record is reminiscent of the Tampa Bay Bucs, especially in their early years. Never a victor, he typically garners around 20 percent of the vote.

Any suggestion that Bartow’s mandatory Anti-Shushing Ordinance is aimed primarily at Cochran’s biweekly appearances would be denied by the commission.

Still, I think it would be a nice gesture to name the ordinance for him.

Gerald Cochran’s Law. Has a nice ring to it, I think.

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(S. L. Frisbie is retired. He offers this off-the-wall proposal: If it is reasonable to expect meaningful public input on a topic in three minutes, impose that same limit on the elected members of the boards. Also on the managers and attorneys whom they hire. Are they not at least as skilled in putting their point across as members of the public?


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