The St. Augustine Record by Margo Pope
July 25, 2020
When the St. Augustine City Commission meets on Monday, its new pandemic-initiated public comment rules face their first test.
The new rules were adopted by the City Commission recently after the public comment period got out of control at its June 26 meeting on a mask mandate resolution. Mayor Tracy Upchurch initiated the rule change discussion after that meeting where the commission adopted the mask mandate. (The mandate, with few exceptions, requires a face covering to be worn in any indoor location in the City of St. Augustine where social distancing cannot be accomplished. Private residences are exempted.)
“The last meeting, we had no control,” Upchurch said in a July 16 Record article. “I had no control as mayor over the repeated phone calls. We’re aware that people are calling in multiple times (from the same number) … It was the most chaotic public meeting I had ever participated in, through nobody’s fault.”
Later, Upchurch told me that callers to the comment line were repeatedly calling back and debating other callers which is not what the public comment period is for.
City Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline was the lone dissenter on the public comment rule change. “It is our responsibility to hold public meetings and make reasonable accommodations for the public to participate in public meetings,” she responded in a text in response to my question on her rationale.
She supports the staff’s work on providing a safe and adequate system but has not backed down on her position. “We should not change the system in a way that reverses our long- standing commitment to increase citizen input, open dialogue and community engagement. We should work in ways to solve the technical problems that challenge us.”
Pamela Marsh, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation of Florida, offered this comment when I interviewed her last week. “Even during this public health crisis all aspects of the Sunshine Law still apply and that means local governments have to permit public participation,” Marsh said. “In my opinion, that means in real time during the meeting during the usual public comment periods.”