April/May 2010

Silence Is Golden for Local Development Agency

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Jennifer A. Mansfield

Local government has to let you in the door, but they don’t have to let you speak, according to a Florida appeals court’s interpretation of the state open meetings law.

The First District Court of Appeal affirmed a trial court’s ruling that while Florida’s Sunshine Law requires that government meetings be open to the public, the public does not have a right to speak at those meetings.

The case arose in the Panhandle city of Pensacola, where a nonprofit, Community Maritime Park Associates, Inc. (CMPA), was charged by the city with overseeing the development of a parcel of public waterfront property. Byron Keesler and Leroy Boyd, two citizens of Escambia County (in which Pensacola is located), wanted to speak at a meeting publicly noticed by CMPA. The nonprofit let the men into the meeting, but refused to give them the floor.

Kessler and Boyd then brought suit, alleging a right to speak at public meetings under Florida’s Sunshine Law. The plaintiffs based their argument on a 1969 decision where the Florida Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Sunshine Law, which requires municipal government to open their governance meetings to the public. In that earlier decision, the state Supreme Court ruled:

The right of the public to be present and to be heard during all phases of enactments by boards and commissions is a source of strength in our county ... . Regardless of the good intentions, these specified boards and commissions, through devious ways, should not be allowed to deprive the public of this inalienable right to be present and to be heard at all deliberations wherein decisions affecting the public are being made.

The Escambia County trial court, however, was not persuaded by the above-quoted language, instead relying on a 1983 Florida Supreme Court case interpreting a university search committee’s obligation to keep its meetings open to the public. Those meetings regarded the search for and hiring of a new dean for the university. In this case, the state high court had commented that the public did not have a right to participate in the search committee’s work:

We hasten to reassure respondents that nothing in this decision gives the public the right to be more than spectators. The public has no authority to participate in or to interfere with the decision-making process.

On March 10, 2010, Florida’s First District of Appeal agreed with the trial court’s analysis, focusing the issue on “not whether CMPA should give citizens an opportunity to speak and provide input at its meetings, but rather whether the Sunshine Law provides citizens the right to speak at public meetings.” The appellate court noted that the appellant’s true remedy lies with the legislative process or the local public official to whom the CMPA reports.

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