August 21, 2016 – The Daytona Beach News-Journal
If DeBary Mayor Clint Johnson was trying to bait city officials into overreacting to his latest outburst, then he can hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner.
That’s probably giving Johnson too much credit. His penchant for saying inflammatory things about his political opponents has always seemed more impulsive than calculating. Nevertheless, the city once again couldn’t resist clearing the high bar of hyperbole in responding — and in so doing compromise the public’s access to open meetings.
In a memo released last Thursday, Interim City Manager Ron McLemore announced increased security and restricted public access to a hearing Wednesday in which the City Council will consider removing Johnson from office for alleged violations of the city charter. As justification, McLemore cited an Aug. 15 tweet by Johnson, “There will be no justice, so let there be no peace,” in reference to the removal hearing. McLemore tied the tweet to a June 21 post on Johnson’s website mayorsmailbox.com in which he called for all law-abiding citizens in DeBary to purchase a firearm, get training and apply for concealed weapon license.
(READ: Sunshine Law expert says DeBary ‘can’t close the meeting’ on mayor’s removal)
…in order to maintain a “safe environment,” the city manager in the memo declared that no one will be allowed in the hearing in the council chambers at City Hall “other than persons essential to the hearing, i.e. city elected officials, attorneys, witnesses, appropriate city staff and those members of the public and others who have signed up to speak.” He also said that “an enhanced level of law enforcement will be present” and that everyone will be screened prior to entry.
McLemore is continuing a practice of leveling overblown accusations against Johnson begun by his predecessor, Dan Parrott, who started this circus back in May with trumped-up charges of violating the charter. The grounds cited against the mayor are too flimsy to support the harsh penalty of removal. They are just an excuse to get rid of a mayor who has annoyed city officials (and some residents) with his bombastic behavior.
Johnson once again may have used infelicitous rhetoric by invoking “no justice, no peace” — a phrase employed a half-century ago by Martin Luther King Jr. as part of an eloquent argument, but which in recent years has become an angry slogan associated with protesters. But it’s a stretch to believe that he was inciting a riot at Wednesday’s hearing.
If the city manager truly has concerns about safety, he should have stopped after requesting more law enforcement officers to be present. That’s been done many times at other public meetings around the state when large crowds are expected and passions might be elevated.
But McLemore went far beyond what is acceptable — and perhaps lawful — when he restricted public access only to those who had signed up to speak. Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, told The News-Journal that there is nothing written in the Sunshine Law or state constitution that allows for a closed meeting when a council is voting to remove its mayor.
It’s ironic that the city manager who worried that the mayor’s social media posts would have “a chilling effect on public participation in one of the most important events in the city’s history” would turn around and limit the number of people who want to attend the hearing. What could be more chilling than to tell a segment of the public to stay away?
If DeBary insists on proceeding with this kangaroo court, it should do so in full public view so everyone can see what a farce it is.