Orlando Sentinel Editorial
April 7, 2017
When it comes to public bodies in Florida, few can match the power and influence of the Constitution Revision Commission. The panel, with 37 members handpicked by Florida’s leaders, convenes once every 20 years with the authority to send amendments to the state’s governing document straight to the ballot for possible voter ratification.
The commission held its first public hearing in Orlando a week and a half ago. Judging from the standing-room-only attendance at the University of Central Florida, and big crowds at two subsequent hearings this past week in South Florida, there’s avid interest among the public.
Businessman Carlos Beruff, appointed to chair the commission by Gov. Rick Scott, hailed the overflow crowd at UCF. “This is about the citizens of Florida showing up and making a difference,” Beruff said. “ … I hope every meeting we go to and attend over the first four months is at capacity.”
But the commission’s proposed rules and early schedule have sent a less receptive message to public.
Mocking open government
Perhaps the most objectionable of the rules, still in draft form, adopts the open-meetings requirements followed by the Legislature; they are more lenient than the requirements governing executive agencies like the commission. Under the commission’s rule, any two of its members can get together to discuss its business in private, without notifying the public or keeping a record of the conversation for public inspection. This would be considered a violation of Florida’s constitution and open-meetings law for other executive agencies. And if a meeting between commission members is not considered “prearranged,” the rule would allow three or more to confer without record keeping or advance notice to the public.
This rule would create the opportunity for the commission to conduct its public business out of public view. Key members might privately coordinate their positions on proposals for amendments from the public, for example. This would make a mockery of Florida’s proud tradition of open government.
Beruff convened the commission’s first meeting March 20, just two business days after the public was notified. Then he announced at the meeting that public hearings would begin the following week, offering little advance warning for the public and even for fellow commission members. The first three hearings have been held amid this year’s legislative session, even though five commission members are legislators and tied up in Tallahassee. When the last commission convened in 1997, it didn’t begin meeting until June that year.
The Florida Legislature also can propose amendments to the constitution, but they must first be endorsed by at least 60 percent of members in both chambers before securing a spot on the ballot. Likewise, citizens can put forward amendments for voter approval, but only after collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures — a months-long process that typically costs millions of dollars — and clearing a constitutional review from the state Supreme Court.
The commission convened after two of the leaders responsible between them for appointing 18 of its 37 members, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron, openly discussed their preferences for proposed amendments, including ones to override the Fair Districts amendments approved by state voters in 2010, legalize school vouchers and slap term limits on judges. The risk that the commission could be hijacked by state leaders as a shortcut to cement controversial, far-reaching changes to state policy in the constitution underscores the importance of ensuring the panel conducts its business openly and fairly.
The commission is scheduled to meet regularly over the next year. If this process is really about ordinary Floridians making a difference, as Beruff insisted, he’ll change the commission’s rules to ensure greater transparency and public participation. [READ MORE]