Public comment changes to be made in County Commission’s Rules of Procedure to prevent long delays for scheduled agenda items

People who want to address board on issues not on an agenda will have limited period at opening of meetings

In early 2017, Mike Consentino prepares to address the County Commission about reopening North Beach Road on Siesta Key. File photo

The Sarasota County commissioners this week stressed that they want to make sure members of the public have the ability to address them on any topic.

Nonetheless, board members said they also do not want to let people who sign up to speak on items not coming before the commission that day to create long delays for others who are present because they do have business on the board agenda.

As a result of concerns that have arisen in recent months, the commissioners voted unanimously on Jan. 29 to direct county staff to revise the board’s Rules of Procedure to incorporate changes in the Open to the Public forums during commission sessions.

On a motion by Commissioner Michael Moran, seconded by Commissioner Alan Maio, the revisions call for the first Open to the Public session to begin with anyone who wants to address the board on an item on the day’s Consent Agenda, which includes routine business matters, or an item listed for discussion.

Unlike the practice with public hearings, the Rules of Procedure do not carve out time for speakers’ comments on the Consent Agenda or discussion items as the board considers those matters.

Then, after the speakers have concluded their remarks on such agenda items, the commission would allow up to 15 minutes for anyone to talk about an issue not on the day’s agenda. Any cards remaining after that 15-minute period concludes would be held for the final Open to the Public session of the day, which would come after all business matters have been addressed.

Public comments will be handled in the same manner for workshops and special meetings, the commissioners decided on a separate unanimous vote. For joint meetings with other local government bodies, public comments would be taken only at the end of the discussions, that second motion said.

“These [joint sessions] are typically half-day or shorter meetings, at which no Board action may be taken, per Florida Statutes,” Leigh Sprimont, director of the county’s Commission Services Division, explained on Jan. 29.

Moran made the second motion, and Maio seconded it.

In response to a question from Maio before the vote, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh explained that the current Open to the Public practices are part of the board’s Rules of Procedure, which were adopted by resolution. “Staff cannot change them without board authorization.”

DeMarsh added that the draft of the revised Rules of Procedure “could come back very quickly on a Consent Agenda …”

Sprimont said she anticipated having the resolution ready for the board to consider during one of its meetings in February.

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. File photo

DeMarsh also pointed out that by including the changes in the Rules of Procedure, the commission puts the public on notice as to what the normal practice will be during meetings. The chair still could have the flexibility, DeMarsh added, to allow for one more speaker, for example, if one card remained in the 15-minute period for addressing non-agenda items.

After the vote, Chair Charles Hines referenced misinformation spread online in regard to a discussion the commissioners held in late November about potential changes to their Open to the Public sessions. Bloggers, he said, had written that the board members were working to limit public comment. “That is so unfair.”

The primary goal, he and other commissioners emphasized this week, is to provide an orderly process to help members of the public waiting to have the board address items scheduled to be heard on a particular day.

“We have a formal agenda that comes before us that staff puts together with a lot of time and energy,” Moran pointed out. Many times, he said, people “have waited a very long time to get on the agenda.” Some of the issues that reach the board on a given agenda, he continued, “literally have been going on for years.”

Moran also referenced emails the commissioners had received after Hines suggested on Nov. 27, 2018 that the board consider changes in regard to Open to the Public practices. “I thought you were incredibly fair,” Moran told Hines. “As a matter of fact, I think you’re being very polite, Commissioner Hines. … The whole point of this is so public comment and public testimony can be heard in organized fashion.”

On Nov. 27, 2018, 15 people had signed up to speak to the commission about the Sarasota County Charter amendments voters approved earlier that month relating to North Beach Road on Siesta Key. Speakers scolded the board members because the county has sided with plaintiffs in litigation that has said the amendments contravene state law.

Largely as a result of those comments during the first Open to the Public session of that meeting, it took the board members about an hour to address the first business item on the Nov. 27 agenda.

The commissioners later asked that staff research how comparable counties handle Open to the Public and then prepare a report for them.

Research and options

This is the chart showing how other counties handle public comment periods. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During her Jan. 29 presentation, Sprimont, the director of the Commission Services Division, pointed out that Sarasota County provides an Open to the Public period at the beginning of each morning session, at the beginning of each afternoon session and at the end of a meeting.

All three of those periods, she said, allow comments on any topic of concern. If a couple of dozen people showed up, she continued, they could “delay scheduled items for sometimes hours.”

Staff reviewed the practices of six other Charter counties, she noted, as well as those of Charlotte and Manatee counties. She showed the board a chart, which was included in their Jan. 29 meeting packet, summarizing the findings. What staff found, she noted, was that “our public comment procedures are very generous.”

Most other counties provide fewer opportunities for Open to the Public, she said.

Chair Charles Hines. File photo

Hines elaborated on Sprimont’s comment about the potential of long delays for scheduled agenda items. For example, he said, 40 people could have shown up to address the board that afternoon during the Open to the Public period. That, he continued, would have pushed back the board’s consideration of a petition by Casey Key Road residents for a Coastal Setback Class II Emergency Variance. “It could take these folks until 6 or 7 tonight to get to their hearing. That’s what we’re talking about.”

“This doesn’t happen that often,” Hines said of numerous speakers addressing the board on a non-agenda item, “but when it does, it’s incredibly unfair … I think in my six years [on the commission], it’s happened maybe four or five times, but it’s getting more and more frequent.”

His goal, Hines stressed, was to give the board chair flexibility to deal with such situations.

Commissioner Maio agreed that Open to the Public periods should give first priority to speakers addressing agenda items that are not public hearings. Then, he also concurred, others wishing to speak should have a limited number of minutes. Anyone who had not been able to address the board, Maio added, should have to wait until the end of the meeting.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler pointed out, “We work for the people, but we also have business to do.”

Ziegler did voice concern, though, that because of work schedules, it might be difficult for some members of the public to comply with the proposed changes. Perhaps the board should make certain to allow speakers on non-agenda items at the end of both the morning and afternoon sessions, he suggested.

Commissioner Nancy Detert said she would support any revision that allows the public to address agenda items in the morning and non-agenda topics at the end of meetings. “I think that’s fair because of what we’ve seen.”

She concurred with Commissioner Moran that some people “have to patiently wait” months to appear before the board on a request, and then they have to wait even longer the day of their hearing because others want “to protest something …”

After the board discussion, Sprimont noted the two options staff had suggested. The first was to limit public comment on non-agenda items until the end of the day. That was essentially the Charlotte County Commission’s practice, she said.

The second option was a hybrid of the Manatee and Hillsborough county practices, she continued. That was the model the board members ended up choosing.