Public's right to speak questioned at meetings

Theodora Rusnak, Citrus County Council

A small, but vocal, group of Citrus County residents asked the county commission on Tuesday to restore things to the way they were before the BOCC voted to change the order of "Open to the Public" comments at BOCC meetings.

The group has been lobbying commissioners during the past two commission meetings to modify an ordinance that governs public comment during governmental meetings which was modeled to comply with Senate Bill 50, passed by the Florida Legislature earlier this year.

Senate Bill 50 was a response to an appeals-court ruling on Florida’s open-government Sunshine Law. The decision by the court interpreted the law to require officials to meet in public, but not require them to give citizens a voice.

The bill allows governments to set time limits on public comment and exempts some meetings of an emergency or purely ceremonial nature. It also allows enforcement by court orders known as injunctions.

The Florida Senate approved the bill (SB 50) by a vote of 40-0. A companion measure was passed in the House. Before he departed, and after consulting with other county attorneys, former Citrus County Attorney Richard Wesch recommended that the best way for the county to comply was to move the "Open to the Public" portion of the meeting to the top of the agenda, immediately after roll call.

Political foes of Wesch's legal opinions then questioned why he should even have suggested that his method was the right method for the county. They have also posited that the old way was the best way for them.

At Tuesday's meeting, Citrus County Council representative Theodora Rusnak took county commissioners to task for agreeing to modify the county ordinance to reflect Wesch's suggestions. "We can do better than this," she said. It is just a matter of will."

Lecanto resident Chris Lloyd agreed. "I'll really, really unhappy with what you have done." Declaring a recent "Listening Workshop" held by the county a dismal failure, Lloyd called that effort, "an insult." He said it was little more than indulging in "a piece of theater." He called for the ordinance to be "thrown into the trash can."

Later in the meeting, Commissioner Scott Adams, who is sympathetic with reverting the ordinance to its original state, made a motion for an up-or-down vote to do just that. His motion died for lack of a second. "The Town Hall meetings are a joke," Adams said. "All we've done is crated chaos, and fixed things that weren't broke to begin with."

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