City Council keeps public forum, considers ethics and public records training

December 7, 2015 – At a workshop, Pensacola City Council discussed several possible rule changes, proposed by Council Consultant Al Coby, including a change to public input at the regular meetings. Currently, citizens may speak about an item on the approved agenda, though comments must be related to the specific agenda item being discussed. The “Boyd Forum,” named after a deceased local activist LeRoy Boyd who frequently spoke at the Council’s public forums, is an opportunity for the public to provide comments about issues that are not on the agenda. There are two “Boyd forums,” one near the beginning, and one near the end of regular meetings – each lasting up to thirty minutes (or longer at council discretion). One recommended rule change, would have eliminated the LeRoy Boyd forum near the beginning of the meeting, meaning citizens wishing to bring an issue to the Council would have to wait until the end of the regular meeting, which can last late into the night, sometimes 5 hours or longer (regular meetings start at 5:30 pm).

Councilwoman Sherri Myers, stated “Instead of talking about limiting public input, I would rather us talk about how to increase public input.” She recommended that the public forum be left as it is now, and added that she would recommend the name of the forum be changed to the “LeRoy Boyd Forum,” to recognize the person for whom the forum is honored. “There’s a lot of Boyds out here and this is for one specific person who was an irreplaceable champion of the poor, the disenfranchised…”

Councilwoman Jewel Cannada-Wynn, said, “I think that we should have one forum. Even though the people come down just for the short length of time, we have other people who are on the agenda as well for public hearings and everything else that stay three hours or two and a half hours…I know that we have to have a forum. I wanted to have one forum.”

Councilman P.C. Wu said, “I can understand the logic in striking it, but I believe anything that limits the peoples’ right to come and address their government is not a good thing.”

Councilman Gerald Wingate said, “I’d like to see the forums stay where it is. I’d like to see one at the beginning so that people can come up and say what they need to say…and there are other people that may not be able to get there at the beginning of the meeting. If you got one at the end, and the majority of the time there’s no one there at the end to speak, but if you have that opportunity, if you can’t get there until the end to speak, it’s good…I feel that we should keep it as it is, one at the front and one at the end.”

Councilman Bare said, “I think it’s better to have two [Boyd Forums]…if you don’t get a chance to get down there for the beginning of the meeting – you’ve got other things, you’ve got a family, you’ve got something to do – you can still come and address this council at the end. You may not be addressing the full council, because some leave early…I like having it as part of the Council meeting…I believe the beginning one is absolutely crucial, and even our own consultant has said that the most he’s seen us have was forty minutes, and that was because some of us [council] talked too…we need to have those two opportunities. I don’t want to see it go down to one”

Several citizens showed up to present their concerns about limiting public input.

Barbara Mayall

Barbara Mayall

Barbara Mayall told the Council, “When you come to our doors and ask for our vote, you ask us…what does the citizen want from our elected officials, and it’s certainly not less public input…I feel that we have some great city council people, and they listen to us. We may not all agree…at the end of the day, we don’t agree on a lot of things, but we don’t dislike each other…When you come and do your campaigning, you want our vote. And if you’re not willing to hear us when we have an issue, at a public forum for three minutes or two, then maybe we should get some people that do want to hear us.”

Nathan Monk added, “We don’t have the greatest track record of public input at City Council, and we’ve made a lot of changes since then, and I don’t necessarily consider them for the better. We went from four minutes to three, we went from two meetings to one…If my memory serves me correctly, we were unable to get the “blanket ban” issue on the agenda. and we ended up being able to get it back on the agenda thanks to having the Boyd Forum at the beginning of the meeting. Hundreds of people showed up to that meeting hoping that we would be able to get it on the meeting…an action was able to take place. It is very important that the public has an opportunity to have input. And when the public has not had the opportunity to have input, or when that input has been limited, just as Barbara mentioned, some of us don’t always agree, but we can agree on the fact that we need the opportunity to be able to speak. And we have always rallied around that fact.”

Dottie Dubuisson

Dottie Dubuisson

Dottie Dubuisson commented, “When you talk about limiting it [public input], I will point out that you have already halved the time that you used to get from the public, because you used to have two meetings. Twice a month you would have the opportunity for Boyd Forums, before and afterwards. So you’ve already cut that in half.” She continued, “I would encourage you to do everything you can to ensure that the LeRoy Boyd Forum, the principle of giving every citizen a free and easy access to you is preserved. Some people do not have internet access. Some people cannot write coherently. Some people are too timid to say something on a phone or a machine. And we’ve had some of those individuals in the last few moths stand up and speak because they have watched other citizens speak on t.v., and they say ‘ I finally decided to come down and speak to you.’ So please allow that freedom of interaction from the citizens to continue and keep the half hour at least at the beginning of the meeting.”

Jeremy Bosso

Jeremy Bosso

Jeremy Bosso addressed the Council, “I want to reiterate everything these guys said…Other than the Boyd Forum, public comment is pretty strictly limited to the approved items that are on the agenda. We’ve been reminded plenty of times ‘stay on topic, that’s not the item we’re discussing’…So the Boyd Forum is very important. It’s often one of the few opportunities that people have to bring other important issues to their representatives in a public forum…There have been times where issues weren’t on the agenda, but we were able to get it on the agenda because people were able to show up, they were passionate, they organized, they planned an event, and they were able to bring awareness to these issues. We talked about the blanket ban and other issues. Without that Boyd Forum being available, it would have been been harder to bring that awareness to our representatives. So I definitely think that more opportunity to be heard is definitely something we should strive for. As Ms. Wynn pointed out, she is correct, that other people do have to wait for their agenda item, if they’re there to speak about an item that’s on the agenda. They do have to wait, but at least they are assured that their topic is already on the agenda. So I think we should consider that as well.” He addressed other proposed rule changes as well, stating “I do like the idea of increasing the public notification time for special meetings and workshops from 48 hours to 72 hours, giving people more notice to get that information and be able to make plans accordingly. Also, I like the idea of annual training for council members for ethics, and public records and public meeting laws. I think that anytime you’re going to help get folks ethics training and public records training, that’s a good thing.”

Tom Thompson, the Director at the Florida Family Policy Council,  also spoke in favor of leaving both of the public forums in place as they are. He also addressed the importance of providing equal speaking time to all members of the public.

The City Council voted unanimously to keep the public forum as is – with public comments at the beginning and end of regular meetings. Council members Brian Spencer and Larry Johnson were absent. Because this was a workshop, and not a regular meeting, the “straw vote” was non-binding, but a symbolic show of consensus on the support for keeping the current open forums.

Issues of decorum were also discussed, including whether “clapping” during public meetings were considered a form of protected free speech.

Other proposed changes to the Council’s procedures include increasing the public notification of special meetings and workshops from 48 hours to 72 hours (where practical), and a proposed requirement for council members to receive four (4) hours of ethics training per calendar year which addresses, “at minimum, the Code of Ethics for public officials and employees and the public records and public meeting laws of the State of Florida.”

You can watch the video of the discussion and public comment here (public comments at approx. 30 minute mark).
You can read the proposed changes here.