Sunday, June 11, 2017
Scary signs from Florida's Constitution Revision Commission | Sun Sentinel Editorial
Convened only once every 20 years, is Florida's 2017-2018 Constitution Revision Commission turning into "a farce, or a tragedy, or both," in the words of James Madison in 1822?:
"A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."
Scary signs from Florida's Constitution Revision Commission | Editorial
Sun Sentinel Editorial Board
Constitution Revision Commission member says public should be "dismayed and depressed" by what's happening.
Floridians have reason to believe the fix is in when it comes to the state's most powerful unelected group.
On Tuesday, the Florida Constitution Revision Commission approved rules for how its 37 members will decide which proposed amendments will go on the 2018 ballot. A news release said the goal is to "facilitate an open and transparent process for the public and to ensure that all commissioners have a voice during the process."
Really? Let's recap.
The commission began holding public hearings in March without having set any rules for how it would operate and while its legislative members were in Tallahassee for the annual session.
After criticism for starting prematurely, Chairman Carlos Beruff — whom Gov. Rick Scott appointed — drafted rules that gave him near-dictatorial powers. After more criticism, Beruff named an eight-member committee to draft rules for discussion at a May 17 meeting. Nine days later, he disbanded the committee.
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Beruff then told commissioners to submit their own proposals for how decisions should be made. All of them, he said, would be considered.
But at Tuesday's meeting, Beruff rushed through a proposal from Commissioner Brecht Heuchan. The proposal came close to what advocacy groups wanted. Further debate could have made it better.
Then, Beruff refused to allow debate on roughly 200 pages of alternative ideas. When Commissioner Bob Solari asked for more discussion, noting that the rules had changed "five or six times," Beruff said, "I rule against it."
Ironically, the rules aren't as bad as some had feared. Advocacy groups, including the League of Women Voters, had worried the rules might not adhere tightly enough to the Sunshine Law.
The rules adopted Tuesday emphasize public access, says First Amendment Foundation Director Barbara Petersen. But she wants Beruff to clarify that two or more members can't talk privately about commission business.
The 1997-98 commission — the panel meets every 20 years — set "a high standard," Petersen said. "We encourage Chairman Beruff to follow the same standards."
One key difference with the 1997-98 commission is that committees will be able to reject amendments on their own. Twenty years ago, committees were advisory only. They sent proposals to the full commission with a favorable, unfavorable or neutral recommendation.
This time, committee decisions will be binding. Any member can pull a proposal from a committee, but it will take a majority vote of the commission. It thus will be harder for the entire group to hear all proposals.
In an interview with the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board, Heuchan defended this change as a "workaround for every little anxiety." Twenty years ago, he said, a steering committee helped to work out the rules. He acknowledged that Tuesday's meeting was "contentious," but compared the debate to the one two decades ago over similar issues.
It's true the last commission disagreed over such things as the power of the chairman and the role of committees. Given the unique nature of this panel, there are only so many points to debate.
The key difference is there is no record of the previous chairman — the late Dexter Douglass, former special counsel to Gov. Lawton Chiles — using high-handed tactics like those of Beruff.
Before public hearings began, the previous commission held a three-day organizational session, which included approval of the rules that later were amended. Records show a collegial, professional debate.
None of that happened Tuesday.
Solari, an appointee of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, summed it up accurately: "We have one set of procedures when certain people like them and another set when those same people do not like the first ones. I find this very disturbing. … If I was a member of the public today, I would be dismayed and depressed at what I see here."
Sadly, the commission reflects the Republican civil war in Tallahassee — the governor against his own party. Beruff has been terrible, showing the same temperament he displayed during his brief U.S. Senate campaign last year, when he called former President Barack Obama "an animal."
Finally, six commissioners were absent Tuesday for this critical vote. And Friday, the commission announced it had to reschedule its June 22 meeting because of scheduling conflicts.
Commissioners knew the workload when they agreed to serve. If they can't find the time, they should resign.
This is the first Republican-dominated Constitution Revision Commission. The party is doing little to earn the public's trust.
Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O'Hara, Andrew Abramson, Elana Simms, Gary Stein and Editor-in-Chief Howard Saltz.
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