Lack of public comment at meeting sparks proposed policy
The lack of opportunity for public comment during Police and Fire Pension Fund board of trustees’ meetings has led to an investigation by the City Office of Ethics, Compliance and Oversight and development of legislation to address the issue.
“It was very eye-opening for Carla (Miller) and I when we asked about public comment at the meeting and found out there was none,” said James Young, Ethics Commission chairman.
Young and Miller attended the Jan. 18 meeting of the fund after receiving a complaint from Curtis Lee regarding the lack of public comment at meetings. Lee is a resident who has been a proponent of pension reform.
“When I first came here four years ago I assumed that citizens had a right to speak at meetings because if you have the right to be there then wouldn’t you also have the right to speak?” said Miller, ethics office director.
She determined that is not always the case, as boards and committees work to balance business and public comment.
“You don’t want to be abusive of that right and have citizens run the meeting. You’ll have a one-hour Ethics Commission meeting and three hours of public comment. You have to strike that balance,” said Miller
The commission is working on legislation it plans to present to City Council President Bill Bishop.
It would create a public meetings section to the City’s Code of Ethics and would require “that members of the public be given a reasonable opportunity to be heard before any agency, board or commission of the City of Jacksonville takes official action on any proposition before the public body.”
The drafted legislation would apply to all dependent and independent agencies, boards or commissions established by the City’s Charter. It will not apply to Council or any of its committees regulated by Council rules.
The legislation also allows the governmental bodies to set time limits for public comment or develop procedures to accept public comment in the event of a large number of speakers, which could include accepting written comments.
“The reason we have highlighted this issue is that we need to have some procedures in place and we need to have some fairness in allowing people to speak,” said Miller.
Before voting on a resolution to support the proposed legislation, the commission voted to table the issue and have further discussion at its March 11 meeting.
“There has clearly been some negative reaction to this. I would like to hear what those people have to say that are against this, so we can make sure if there is a need for this,” said L.E. Hutton, commission vice chairman.
While he could not confirm his attendance at the March 11 meeting, Council member Richard Clark has voiced opposition to requiring boards and committees to run their meetings a certain way.
“I get what Carla (Miller) is attempting to do. Her role is to find the most idyllic way to do things. It may not always be the most pragmatic way to do things,” said Clark, who is the Council liaison to the fund board of trustees.
Pension Fund board Chairman Bobby Deal confirmed Tuesday that the board does not schedule time for public comment.
“I don’t see it as a problem. (the Police and Fire Pension Fund board) appear, to me, to be very acceptable and any time people want to reach out to them they are willing to listen. I don’t see the need to rewrite (meeting structures) to accommodate that,” said Clark.
“Every board has its own way of operating. They are independent boards. If they feel that their particular entity needs public comment, then they should do it,” he said.
Deal on Tuesday also said the board has been researching if it can add a public comment section to its board meetings and that the board plans to have a decision in two months on whether to change its structure.
“It’s not as simple as just opening it up and allowing people to speak. We have 4,000 members and if every one of them decided that they wanted to come down and comment, we would have a very long meeting,” said Deal.
“It’s much more professional to have a policy that is properly researched and vetted than to just open it up. We will be looking at this over the next couple of months and plan to take something to the trustees for consideration,” said Deal.
The Ethics Commission will meet at 5 p.m. March 11 at City Hall.