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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Feb. 12, 201412:00 PM EST

Ethics Commission wants clarity on when to allow public comment

by: David Chapman

City Council member John Crescimbeni holds a public comment session in the Recreation and Community Development committee he chairs every other week.

For his and similar council subgroups, it’s been left up to the person in charge as to whether the public has a chance to speak.

Most do not have a regular public comment period.

A state law passed last year gives the public “reasonable opportunity” to be heard at meetings, but the city’s Ethics Commission wants clarity from the Florida Attorney General about what triggers the comment provision along with an interpretation of what is a board or commission.

Carla Miller, city Ethics, Compliance and Oversight director, said Monday the commission sought the clarification on behalf of a constituent, Connie Benham, who wants public comment opportunities at all levels.

Commission Vice Chair Joe Jacquot wrote the letter to Bondi and uses public comment for committee and subcommittee votes as an example.

While the public is given the opportunity to discuss bills during regular public comment sessions, those generally come before committees review and often change a bill.

The commission wants to know if the public has a right to speak when those additions, subtractions and discussions are had and seeks a clarification on what the “official action” language means in the law.

“In other words, is the right to be heard effective each time a board or commission takes action on a particular matter, or is the right only effective at final passage or approval?” he asks.

Crescimbeni said he read the law passed by the state as a means for additional public comment and that it “doesn’t make the process any less cumbersome.”

“They deserve the opportunity to voice their opinion,” Crescimbeni said. “I don’t mind public comment, whether they drag on for five minutes or five hours, that’s part of the process, that’s what we are all supposed to be about.”

A bill sponsored by council President Bill Gulliford that would have limited the scope of public comments by topic was withdrawn Tuesday after being pulled from the consent agenda.

If passed, members of the public would have been limited to only discuss topics council has jurisdiction over or “are

reasonably related to City government matters,” instead of any interest or idea.

Gulliford said the intent was for courtesy and consideration for the council and public by keeping meetings on point, but that the perception ended up that it would curtail public comment. That wasn’t the case, he said, but with the pushback he decided to withdraw it.

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