Public is seen, but not heard
By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- Jay Campbell, a lawyer who helps run a Tampa nonprofit agency, has traveled to the state capital for years, speaking to legislators about organ and tissue transplants.
He didn't expect March 3 to be any different.
But this time Campbell didn't get a chance to speak at the Senate committee meeting he attended. Neither did the doctors accompanying him.
"I was just shocked," said Campbell, an executive at Lifelink, an organ and tissue recovery group. "I'm not new at this . . . but I've never been in a situation where you were not allowed to speak."
Some Floridians who have traveled to Tallahassee this legislative session have found that they have been shut out of the process, barred from speaking to legislators during the only meetings at which public debate is allowed.
It's happened in both the Senate and House during consideration of myriad bills, from school vouchers and health insurance to public records and Miccosukee Indian land.
Sometimes legislators forbid debate altogether. Other times, they allow only one person to speak on behalf of each side of the issue. Usually, they just limit the amount of time a person can talk.
"These are our elected representatives," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog for open government in Florida. "How do they know what our interests are if they don't let us speak?"
Petersen and other supporters of public debate say legislative leaders should make sure certain people are allowed to speak, and schedule extra meetings if they run out of time.
"Somebody who comes up all the way up to Tallahassee should be listened to," said Rep. John Carassas, R-Clearwater.
But that's not always the case.
Every year, some people are shut out of the political process, but observers and even some legislators themselves say it's more frequent this year.
On Feb. 7, during the third week of the legislative session, a crowd of people exploded in anger when they weren't allowed to speak against a health insurance bill at the House Health Regulation Committee.
"It is unfair that people travel so far and are not heard," said Rep. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat who protested the lack of public comment after that meeting. "I think there was a higher sensitivity after that incident."
But just one week later, on Feb. 14, only six minutes of public comment was allowed at the House Council for Lifelong Learning on a proposal giving vouchers to public school students. And on March 2, debate was severely limited at the House Council for Smarter Government when legislators discussed whether to eliminate law enforcement jurisdiction over Miccosukee Indian land.
"The issue didn't get properly aired," said John Glogau of the state Attorney General's Office, who wasn't allowed to speak about the Indian bill. "It's not the first time it's happened."
Just this week, the Senate Governmental Oversight and Productivity Committee didn't allow comment on any of its 37 bills, including several whose language was not available until hours before the Monday night meeting.
"There is no rule that requires public testimony," said Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, who sits on that Senate committee. "But if someone comes from out of town . . . it does look bad when you don't let them speak."
After Monday's meeting, Curt Kiser, a lobbyist for the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, was in the hallways fuming about not getting to speak on any of the 14 bills that would create exemptions to the Sunshine Law.
"That does happen occasionally, but not frequently or all the time," Kiser, a former legislator, said later.
Lawmakers explain that it's sometimes impossible to have time for debate at the end of the session when legislators are trying to quickly pass hundreds of bills in committees and get them to the full House and Senate.
"That's not uncommon when the clock is ticking," Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonsville, who is poised to become the next Senate president if the Republicans retain control in November.
The leading complaint made to the First Amendment Foundation from citizens throughout the state is their not being allowed to talk during government meetings, whether it's the Legislature or a local city council, Petersen said.
"I think we've gone a little too far," Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua said. "I think we're getting the reputation for turning off the lights."
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