Jacksonville, FL (April 25, 2017) Our government allows for and encourages public involvement. In Duval County there are numerous ways citizens can be heard from attending CPAC and Sheriff’s Watch meetings, to speaking at community and district town halls, to addressing the City Council at its scheduled meetings at City Hall. The recently passed ordinance 2017-160 clarified rules pertaining to this fundamental part of our democracy with an eye towards citizen protections.
First let’s define the difference between a public hearing and public comments. A public hearing is mandated by state law to allow the public to be heard on a particular bill and is part of the rights of citizens within the agenda. Public comments however, is an extra opportunity that the Jacksonville City Council allows for, twice in fact, during the council agenda for the public to speak on any subject that concerns them. It is not mandated by the state, therefore, the rules of that time period are local.
Ordinance 2017-160, led by District 11 Council Member Danny Becton through his work on the Rules Committee, changed the way speakers had to announce to the City Council out loud, their name and address prior to speaking. It also addressed, the special conditions when public speaking times may be limited at public hearings so that large quantities of speakers can be accommodated if the midnight hour that the Council meeting must end, looks to not allow completion for all speakers for that evening.
Stating out loud, one’s address, gave many citizens serious concerns that their personal information was being communicated to the entire city of Jacksonville as well as the world-wide-web when broadcasts and replays are transmitted on the internet. In stating one’s address, criminals could use this information in a variety of ways to cause harm financially or physically, as a result.
In hearing these issues, CM Becton, prior to the final release of this Bill, requested extra time to research and solve this very issue which had not been addressed. Using technology, the solution was quickly found, whereby instead of the speaker needing to say out loud their personal information, the speaker card itself will be used to transmit to each members screen during the speaker’s presentation all their personal information using the elementary school device called an “Elmo”. The new process now only requires the speaker to give their name, along with a filled out card to address the Council. In addition, the bill allows registered lobbyists to give their business address in lieu of a residential address for the record.
Hot topic issues sometimes fill the council chambers with overflowing citizens wanting to make a statement on an important issue. Granting a full three minutes to each speaker becomes impractical, if the number of citizens times 3 minutes, far exceeds the midnight hour. A recent example was the Human Right Ordinance that had hundreds of speakers on each side of the issue. Because this was a public hearing, the chair couldn’t ration the time to get everyone heard before the mandated midnight adjournment. The meeting was reconvened the next morning but less than 10 percent of those who had yet to be heard returned the next day. With passage of this bill, the chair by a vote of the majority of the body can reduce the three minutes, downward (ex. 2 minutes) to accommodate more if not all citizens, wanting to be heard within the time remaining.