Silencing of Floridians





Floridians, take notice. Your right to a representative government is being stolen away. Recent headlines document angry eruptions among an audience of people who show up to meetings ready to tell their leaders what they think — only to be muzzled by time limits that shut down some would-be participants before they could utter a single word. More often, however, the exclusion is happening quietly and secretly, in meetings that never take place. Closed doors that should be open. A row of empty seats on a dais, facing a roomful of chairs that are also empty. The result, however, is the same: The only people who can register their concerns face-to-face with their elected officials are the elites who can afford the private clubs and campaign contributions that give them direct access to power. The voices of regular Floridians are shut out or told to shut up. ‘LET US SPEAK’ That latter command stirred an outcry Nov. 9-10 when the Board of Governors of Florida’s state university system convened in Orlando. As the Sentinel’s Annie Martin reported, a crowd primed to protest rules that threaten free-expression rights on Florida campuses overspilled the boundaries of the meeting room and a designated overflow room. In a cruelly related dictate, Board Chairman Brian Lamb denied them the right to speak in favor of free speech, diversity and inclusion — by imposing a 15-minute time limit on all public comment. When he gaveled the discussion to a close, the crowd chanted “Let us speak,” but a majority of board members were unwilling to listen. Lamb said the limitation was “customary,” Martin reported. That’s categorically false. Across Florida, elected and appointed boards and commissions have taken it as a point of pride: When their constituents show up to a public meeting, they deserve the opportunity to be heard. It’s even enshrined in the state constitution. A BRUTAL QUIET Even worse, however, are those meetings that never take place. The public is not just shut out of a chance to talk about what their elected officials are doing — they are denied the chance to listen. That was also on display — or rather, not — over the past week, which was one of the last scheduled committee weeks before the state Legislature starts its regular session in January. ‘These committee meetings are essential parts of Florida’s legislative process, because they are the public’s only opportunity to directly address lawmakers on issues that are important to everyday Floridians. Of 35 House committees, 16 canceled their meetings last week; the ratio was even worse in the Senate, where 17 of 26 committees did not meet. Among them: All 10 of the committees Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, serves on, including Banking and Insurance; Governmental Oversight and Accountability; and Appropriations. Stewart said she didn’t even bother to return to Tallahassee after the November 6-10 special session. The cost of those cancellations could be devastating for Floridians who hoped to ask lawmakers for statutory changes governing everything from homeowners’ associations to prison conditions — or to register their opposition to policies that take away essential freedoms or reduce oversight. Because legislation must be heard in at least one committee before it goes to the floor, shutting down committee meetings means narrowing the pipeline that allows that information to flow. It also means an increased likelihood that lawmakers will seek to link their unheard bills to other legislation — creating massive “trains” that thunder through the legislative process before anyone can register what’s happening. We’d like Senate President Katherine Passidomo and House Speaker Paul Renner to explain why these meetings were canceled and pledge that legislation will be given ample public hearing time. Stewart says she’s worried that many of her bills will die on the vine. That includes tax exemptions for local businesses and a request from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to preserve evidence that supports victims of sexual assault. Lately, she said, she’s hearing disturbing rumors that an entire week’s worth of committee meetings in December might also be canceled. “We’re already at a breaking point,” she told the Orlando Sentinel on Thursday. “I’ve never seen anything like this happen before.” CLOSED DOORS But it has — with the Florida Cabinet, a governmental construction that is unique to this state. The Cabinet includes the governor along with three independent, statewide leaders — the attorney general, the chief financial officer and the commissioner of agriculture and consumer services. It’s intended to serve as a check over a governor’s executive power by providing independent oversight for executive-branch operations and finances. The same officials make up several independent boards, such as the State Board of Administration, which oversees the state’s multi-billion-dollar investment accounts; the Florida Land and Water Adjudicatory Commission, charged with protecting the state’s environment while hearing appeals of local growth decisions; and the State Board of Executive Clemency, which considers civil rights of former felons. In a normal year, the Cabinet (and the associated commissions) would have met at least 11 times, usually over a two-day span. This year, the Cabinet met five times. Three of those meetings were by phone. One, on March 13, was only seven minutes long. This is how Floridians lose their chance to be heard. The business of state government grinds on — but it does so in secret, with no oversight, no chance to voice protest or encouragement to those entrusted with vast power. Floridians must confront their elected and appointed leaders and demand change. It will be hard, since they can’t even see, right now, what opportunities are being taken away. It may require more amendments to the state constitution — but even that is no guarantee, since many provisions meant to hold Florida’s leaders accountable are being trampled. In the end, all Floridians can do is register our outrage directly to elected officials and in the voting booth. Our birthright is sunshine. But darkness is taking hold.