On a national basis it has become apparent that many of our leaders are afraid of the citizens they represent. We could argue endlessly about the whys and relative threat represented. That’s not why I am writing to the editor today.
Even before Washington was locking down against its citizenry, Franklin County has been closed to the public since 2018. That’s when the rules that had been in effect for more than 10 years to suppress public engagement began. There are two levels of public engagement: Viewing or sitting at meetings, and two, making statements during public comments and engaging commissioners after a motion is made and after commissioner discussions.
Having been involved with county meetings for more than 17 years, I can tell you that nine out of 10 meetings are thinly populated by the public. Mostly employees of government and special interest group prevail. Often times, through the years I have been the only person in the audience and I am always respectful of commissioners’ time, doing my homework ahead of time and trying to understand issues before speaking. This could be improved if commissioners moved county commissions to 5 p.m. and also occasionally had meetings in Carrabelle.
There is an even newer public engagement policy that was designed to be more “open” recently introduced. Instead these new draconian requirements to speak have restrained public engagement even more. Of the last eight meetings, the average number of speakers has been one person, with two of the meetings being zero and one of the meetings being three people, all speaking to the same subject. There has been no one who has addressed the commission on an issue up for a vote.
There is a new requirement that a speaker card be filled out online prior to the meeting in order to speak. I see this as a continued tightening down on both spontaneity and the lack of an inviting atmosphere. The management and implementation of this new policy is causing the county more time and effort, not less.
We are one of the smallest counties in the state. But, we are also home to some wicked smart people who retire here or still work. Why don’t we encourage people to participate instead of setting up barriers? Are we so afraid that the meetings may last an extra 10-15 minutes or are commissioners concerned that they might not look good if some of the comments and questions show a lack of research and due care before voting?
The Florida attorney general wrote an opinion some time back stating that public involvement brings in “a marketplace of ideas” outside the confines of commissioners and staff breathing their own air a bit too much. There still is the stigma of “Not born here.” Too many commissioners seem to have a two-step loyalty test depending on what family you belong to. Time for a change, commissioners.
Let me make a modest proposal. Let’s go back to true open government without rules that turn citizens off and welcome people back into their chamber. The people’s government. Solicit their thoughts and concerns, listen to their experience and judgement and abandon any belief that commissioners know best.
Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, Inc.
This article originally appeared on The Apalachicola Times: Letters: Commissioners know best?