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Senate advances bill to give public voice before boards and commissions

Floridians who take the time to sit through public meetings of local boards, commissions and state agencies will no longer be barred from speaking up, under a bill that is on its way to passage in the Florida Senate. 

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm Harbor, has proposed SB 50, which would require local and state agencies to let the public speak before their boards take any action. The Legislature is not included in the requirement. The Senate gave it preliminary approval Tuesday.

“Among our most cherished rights are a right to a trial by jury, our right to vote and our right to speak,’’ said Negron, a lawyer and 9-year veteran of the legislature. “It may be surprising to learn that under our statutes in Florida, while the public has a right to attend a public meeting, it doesn’t have a right to speak.”

The goal, he said, is not to tell state and local boards how to give public access to speak out, just require that they do it.

 “You work for the citizens and if you are making decisions that affect the public, the public has a right to speak,’’ he said.

There are no penalties attached to the proposal, although members of the public can sue a board if they believe the law has been violated, and can recover attorneys fees in the process. “I don’t want to criminalize more things,’’ he said.

Meetings of boards that are “quasi-judicial” in nature and are exempt from the public meetings laws will also be exempt from the statute.