Sunday, March 19, 2017

Revealing Record article on St. Augustine Beach Commission Public Comment Brouhaha

Vituperative "viewpoint discrimination" attacks on our cherished constitutional rights to public comment in City of St. Augustine Beach government meetings. Thin-skinned officials' audacious attacks exposed in excellent page one Sunday St. Augustine Record story by Sheldon Gardner. Incredibly, Commissioner SHERMAN GARY SNODGRASS refused to answer an easy question about the "four or five people" he doesn't want to listen to at City Commission meetings. Remember what President Harry S Truman said about heat and kitchens?

(City of St. Augustine Beach)

Who are those "four or five people" he wants so silence, and why? Good work by reporter Sheldon Gardner. Bad judgment by St. Augustine Beach Commissioner and ex-Mayor SHERMAN GARY SNODGRASS. The pretext of SAB's one meeting a month going "too long" is exploded. The motive is obvious -- an attack on free speech rights, as First Amendment champion Thomas Elijah Cushman, Esq. establishes beyond peradventure in the article's penultimate paragraphs?
Why limit public comment to three minutes, but let others go on forever?  Other jurisdictions allow there minutes.  It appears that limitations on public comment are an obsession and a common scheme or plan of local yokel hick hack autocrats, like the aborted plans to fire seventeen police officers, adopted by 3-2 vote circa 2011 (Snodgrass, O'Brien and Samuels) but reversed when SHERMAN GARY SNODGRASS saw the light. Pray for him to do so again. Meanwhile, is SNODGRASS fixin' to resign his post? He travels a lot to corporate work in Australia and the Philadelphia area. Evidently, he can't stand the heat and you know what President Harry Truman said about people who can't stand the heat? ("Get the hell out of the kitchen").


(RCM Technologies "Director since 2010")
The Three Faces of GARY SNODGRASS

Posted March 19, 2017 12:02 am - Updated March 19, 2017 05:13 am
St. Augustine Beach commissioners face heat over public comment proposal

The statement came during public comment at a St. Augustine Beach City Commission meeting in early February.

Bob Kahler, a Beach resident and regular attendee of the city’s meetings, stood behind the lectern, addressed St. Augustine Beach Mayor Rich O’Brien, and ended his comments by telling O’Brien to “go to hell.”

In response, O’Brien had Kahler escorted out of the room by a police officer.

The issue, it seems, didn’t end with Kahler’s eviction or the meeting’s close. At their next meeting on March 6, commissioners debated whether to adopt a resolution that would limit the number of times people can speak. Commissioners put the issue off until April 3.

Some residents — and some outside officials — believe the resolution is uncalled for, a swipe at free speech and an effort to tamp down comments that are critical of commissioners and staff.

Indeed, some on the Beach commission disagree on the matter, but those in favor say it’s simply intended to make meetings more efficient — and that it’s got nothing to do with the content of public comments.

“Because of the increased public comment at the meetings, most of which is by a few individuals, our ability to get things done has become limited,” O’Brien said. “Public comment is important to us, but we’re not trying to eliminate public comment. We’re only trying to balance it so that we can get the work of the people done.”

Under existing rules, people can comment for three minutes on virtually any topic that comes up at a meeting. That’s in addition to a three-minute comment period per person allowed under general public comments.

Under the proposed change, commenters would only be able to speak during the general public comment period and during items that require a public hearing. Also, the mayor could decide to extend the floor to a member of the public at another time, but that wouldn’t be required.

Vice Mayor Undine George and Commissioners Maggie Kostka and Margaret England support tapping the breaks on the resolution.

George said during a phone interview with The Record that she believes the timing of the resolution is more about critical public comments than efficiency. Limiting comment on “non-substantive” issues like scheduling of events or meetings would be acceptable, she said. But limiting public comment to public hearings and a public comment period is too restrictive.

“I think we’ve had some efficiency issues, but I don’t think we should be putting all the blame on that to the citizens,” she said.

Over the last several years, “more of a fuss” has been made about critical comments from the public, she said. When she is the target of such comments, she has accepted the fact that she signed up for the job.

“I don’t think that staff or the commissioners are entitled to be immune from unprofessional comments,” George said.

But O’Brien has pushed back against people who directly address a commissioner instead of the commission as a whole, which is what sparked the contention with Kahler on Feb. 6.

The discussion was about whether the commission should support the St. Augustine Beach Civic Association’s management of the Wednesday farmers markets at the beach. Kahler pushed for details on the organization’s finances and asked if the mayor had a problem with that. O’Brien asked him to address the commission as a whole and eventually gaveled him out as the exchange escalated.

Ed Slavin, a local resident and regular speaker at both Beach and St. Augustine City Commission meetings, says St. Augustine Beach has one of the best sets of policies for public commenting in St. Johns County — in its current form.

But he doesn’t support the changes, in part, because they’ll force people to make public comment in anticipation of what might be said on an agenda item.

St. Augustine Beach wants to switch to a system like St. Augustine’s, with fewer opportunities for public comment.

“They [the city of St. Augustine] don’t let you comment on a resolution or a presentation or a first reading of an ordinance,” Slavin said.

Part of the Beach’s problem with efficiency is disorganization, Slavin said. Agenda items aren’t well supported by staff research, and the backup material isn’t well-developed, he said. Slavin also said commissioners let vendors, like Florida Power & Light Company and others, make lengthy presentations at meetings that take up chunks of time.

Also, the Beach could reduce the items on their agenda by meeting twice per month, but they choose to meet only once per month, Slavin said. He also noted that meeting minutes no longer include what people say during public comment, a change that appears to have occurred in the middle of 2016.

“It’s a shibboleth thing about length of meetings,” he said.

Like O’Brien, Commissioner Gary Snodgrass said the effort is not about limiting free speech and that the proposed changes are fair and in line with the law. He said he values public comment from people who are connected to an issue or have expertise.

“What’s not helpful, though, is for people who feel compelled to speak on every issue, whether they have any relevant [perspective at all],” he said, adding it’s the same four or five people.

“As a result, the meetings lose their efficiency,” Snodgrass said. “They lose their effectiveness. In many cases … we’re not able to complete the meetings.”

When asked who those four or five people are, he responded via email that he wouldn’t name them “because you know who they are since you attend our commission meetings.”

The proposal to cut down on public comment has its critics outside of the commission’s chambers.

Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, said state law requires commissions to allow people to speak on anything that will be voted on, and law also allows for rules to help with the orderly progression of meetings.

Restricting comment to just public hearings and a public comment period raises concerns, she said, adding that she thinks it “violates, at the very least, the spirit and intent of that requirement in law.”

Such a procedure doesn’t give people a meaningful opportunity to speak on certain items if they have to speak before such a discussion has even started, she said.

“I don’t know what commissioner ‘Jones’ is going to say. I don’t know what staff is going to say. My ability to comment is diluted. Maybe it’s even worthless. … It’s not allowing comment within the context of the discussion by my elected representatives,” Petersen argued.

An alternative is for commissioners, while still having an open mic period at the meeting, to spread a certain block of time to everyone wishing to speak on a matter, and giving more time for controversial issues and less time for non-substantive issues — it doesn’t have to be three minutes per person, she said.

Someone else who is experienced with First Amendment issues is local attorney Tom Cushman.

Cushman successfully defended Beach resident Tom Reynolds against an injunction for protection against stalking that O’Brien sought last year — as part of O’Brien’s request, he cited a time when O’Brien had Reynolds removed from a meeting during public comment for what O’Brien described as “yelling” and “disrupting” the meeting. The judge dismissed the case, finding that many of the activities in O’Brien’s allegation were protected by the First Amendment.

Cushman voiced concern about the proposed changes.

“I think if these rules are strictly enforced it will have exactly the effect they want it to have, which is to curtail the public from any kind of meaningful public comment on what the commissioners are doing,” Cushman said.

Regardless of opinion, the goal of the policy is efficiency, some said.

Snodgrass said the meetings have begun to drag on, and the commission needs to be able to address issues that could affect the health, safety and welfare of residents.

“I don’t want to stifle anyone’s right to speak,” Snodgrass said. “I want an efficient, effective meeting that’s handled where we can address issues in a timely way.”

Lance Davidson
I am all in favor of them putting in anti-kook measures at the SAB commission meetings. All too often, they're becoming soapboxes for the inane ramblings of a few local lunatics and gadflies. There's always a give and take in civilization between the impulse to regulate and the fear of regulation taken too far... I realize free speech is the most sacred of rights but using that concept as a shield for the ravings of disruptive and nonconstructive moonbats discredits an otherwise sacred and valued principle. Even loons have the right to free speech, but free speech should not empower loons to hijack municipal meetings because of of loose procedural protocols.

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