by Eliot Kleinberg
Plaintiffs may proceed to trial with a suit charging the Palm Beach County Commission usurps public meeting laws when it gives citizens just three minutes to comment on a laundry list of agenda items, a judge ruled Friday.
Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Lisa Small refused a county motion to toss the suit, filed Feb. 17 by Alex Larson and Fane Lozman, two regulars at commission meetings. It demands the county either stop using a “consent agenda” or not limit speakers during that discussion, saying the limits violate Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law.
“We’re going to win,” Larson, whose birthday was Friday, said after the hearing. Lozman did not attend.
County Attorney Denise Nieman, who attended but did not argue the case, said later she was disappointed, “but we understand; we respect the judge’s order and we’ll move forward.”
For now, members of the public get three minutes to comment on a regular agenda item. But they get three minutes total to comment on the entire consent agenda. That’s a collection of items, mostly housekeeping in nature, that the panel disposes of with a single vote, unless a commissioner pulls an item for further discussion.
Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee nonprofit open-government advocacy group supported by newspapers and broadcasters, said Friday that public meetings laws don’t require bodies take comment at the same time they vote, and some panels hold separate workshops or meetings to allow time for comment.
“I’m glad that this suit is going forward,” Petersen said. “It’s a question of law that needs to be resolved.”
Small had dismissed the case May 20, but only because the plaintiffs had failed to submit the agenda for the December meeting; she permitted the plaintiffs to refile, which they did.