2022 ELECTION ISSUE BRIEF
In 1633, the townspeople of Dorcester, Massachusetts filed into their community meeting hall and started what is today a hallowed tradition in our country: public meetings in which citizens exchange thoughts, concerns, and ideas with their elected representatives.
Unfortunately, Lee County discourages this type of citizen engagement, going so far as to restrict critical public input. Some examples:
- About ten years ago, just as Lee County began growing, the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) cut in half the number to twice a month the number of BoCC meetings and restricted public comment on agenda items. Today, citizens can speak for no longer than three minutes on an agenda item or a topic of concern during the public comment period at the meeting’s end. Sadly, existing rules mandate that there be no dialogue with the Commissioners sitting at the dais.
- There is no public input into workshop sessions in which Commissioners discuss major policy issues, such as the budget, infrastructure planning, etc. Citizens are allowed to comment on a workshop topic – but only at the BoCC meeting which takes place in the morning prior to the workshop. Consequently, while people can attend the workshop, they are prevented from joining in.
- Usually, the preliminary consensus decisions made at the workshops are put on the Consent Agenda for approval without any further discussion by Commissioners or any input from the public.
- With citizen advisory committees meeting infrequently or not at all, the Commissioners’ sole source of information on issues is County staff. Rarely does the staff present a menu of options to Commissioners at a public meeting where the audience can listen to discussion and comment; the vast majority of decisions have been decided and Commissioners are only there to ratify them.
- Advisory committees are stacked with individual donors to County Commissioners and do not reflect the diversity of Lee County. The Executive Regulatory Oversight Committee, for example, which reviews potential county regulations for their impact on the economy, is comprised of 14 men and 1 woman – and all represent some facet of the development sector. Furthermore, four of its original members have served a total of 116 years.
- Whereas before, Advisory Committees attended Management and Planning meetings (the precursor to workshops meetings) to present their recommendations, today it is very rare for these committees to go before the BoCC.
- At the BoCC meeting, Commissioners vote on what is known as a “Consent Agenda,” which rolls up numerous items for a vote with no discussion (unless an item is “pulled” for discussion). Recently, one Consent Agenda contained 23 different topics and entailed the spending of millions of dollars. For citizens, paying close attention to this maneuvering is nigh to impossible.
- Commissioners complain that residents are not involved in formulating the county budget, but the process in place essentially shuts out public involvement. Preliminary budget discussion is first held at a workshop, in which citizens are prohibited from participating, and then is put on the August agenda after the Commissioners’ 5-week break. Again, residents have three minutes to present their views. By the time of the statutorily required September budget public hearings, the budget is set in stone and the Commissioners are simply going through the motions – and complaining that citizens are disinterested, when, in fact, they have been discouraged from participating.
- The County Land Development Code threatens criminal punishment for residents communicating with Commissioners regarding pending zoning decisions. The penalty for doing so? Sixty days in the county jail and/or a $500 fine. To our knowledge, Lee is the only Florida County that criminalizes such communications.
- Moreover, in zoning hearings, rules allow unlimited time for developers and attorneys to make their case, when – again – each citizen has three minutes. But these residents can be subjected to cross-examination by developers’ attorneys, a most intimidating prospect. Under withering questioning, some people testifying have walked out in disgust.
- Backup data generated by County staff to support agenda items is often unavailable to the public except through Public Records Requests, often delayed and with a cost.
- Public workshops out in the community, once common, are no longer offered. Instead, one-way, slickly produced “informational” sessions led by county staff give citizens rote answers to their questions, but there is no provision for a two-way dialogue should residents have concerns. Furthermore, County Commissioners usually are not present, so there is no opportunity for residents to express their concerns directly to policymakers.
COMMON SENSE SOLUTIONS
- Allow citizens limited time to speak at workshops and extend comment period at bocc meetings to five minutes.
- Allow commissioners to enter into dialogue with citizens testifying at commission meetings.
- Hold all public hearings at times convenient to residents who work. Currently, the vast majority of hearings are held during regular bocc meetings, which take place in the morning.
- Create a citizens’ task force to review advisory committee structure and make recommendations to the BoCC.
- Advertise openings on advisory committees widely (including via social media and email) and ensure that membership reflects the diversity of Lee County
- Enforce term limits as set by a resolution of the Bocc. For example, some members of the Industrial Development Authority have been on the IDA for decades, disregarding the two-term limit adopted by the commissioners. Currently, commissioners waive the term limitation when reappointing members, some of whom have been on the IDA since the 1980’s.
- Have committees report recommendations directly to BoCC, rather than have them buried by county staff.
- Hold regular public workshops on important issues with Commissioners present to allow citizens to engage in dialogue with commissioners, thus ensuring that they hear from residents in addition to special interests.