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Public Comments Ordinance: Decorum? Or will democracy die on our watch?

An open letter to the residents of Apopka

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Dear Friends and Neighbors-

I am not one to sound alarms pointlessly, so you can trust me when I tell you that it is time to pay close attention to the business that is taking place in the Council Chambers at Apopka City Hall.

If you have never attended an Apopka City Council Meeting, or made public comments, your next chance will be on Wednesday, May 18th at 7 PM. I strongly suggest that you make an effort to be there as it may be one of your last opportunities to be heard. I did not say that to get a reaction, I meant it as a legitimate “Call to Action.”

The rules for Maintaining Order and Decorum at City of Apopka public meetings are about to be “codified” with the consideration of proposed Ordinance No. 2931. I have reviewed the wording of the proposed Ordinance and I am disturbed by some of the language contained in the draft that was made available to me upon request prior to the last City Council Meeting on May 4th.

From my perspective and experience, when a branch of government at any level seeks to limit our ability to speak openly in a public forum, we should make it our mission to understand the gravity of the situation and speak up about what is really at stake. If we do not participate in the decision making process (when we have a chance), especially when it pertains to limiting public input and debate, then shame on us when we “cry in our beer” (or beverage of choice) about being silenced.

I do not want you to say that nobody warned you about this issue.

Look at Item 14 on the Agenda for the May 18th Apopka City Council Meeting and do the homework for yourself. If you have ideas or input about the matter, please do not miss your chance to speak up. It will help all of us if we express the appropriate level of concern in unison.

If you don’t know where to look for the info, I will walk you through finding the material that is published for the public to review in advance of the Council meetings. Theoretically, one would refer to this information to determine how important it is to take time off from work, arrange a babysitter and/or other logistics so that you can spend at least several hours away from your work and life to do your civic duty. Here is an overview of the steps you might need to take, if you want to be heard: research and prepare, get to City Hall on time, fill out a speaker’s card, suffer through the fear of public speaking, wait for your turn, make your few minutes of allowed comments politely on the record for the Mayor, Commissioners, Managers, Staff and the Interested Public at large to hear. Phew! Good for you if you can make all of that happen just to be heard briefly in a process that is daunting and in an atmosphere that it is intimidating for most average citizens.

Worrying about whether you are going to trip into the new "codified" rules, offend the Mayor or Commissioners and get kicked out of the Meeting or arrested, adds another layer of anxiety to the mix. I have never even come close to being arrested for anything in all of my years. I might have to consider the possibility of ending up in jail overnight for "Civil Disobedience" like the well-known Henry David Thoreau did for refusing to pay his poll tax in protest against slavery. Hardly a fair comparison, but the concept of civil disobedience has crossed my mind recently with various rights coming under attack.

So, back to Item 14 on the Agenda for the May 18th Apopka City Council Meeting. 

On the City of Apopka website, find the Tab for Public Meetings, click on Meeting Agendas, click on Proceed to Site, look for Apopka City Council Meeting of the appropriate date and then click on the Agenda file to see a Summary of the Items to be discussed. If you want to see the materials to be considered, click on the file icons in the Packet Column.  Or you can take a shortcut using this link, and follow the same instructions to find the specific materials for each meeting by date.

https://meetings.municode.com/MeetingsPage/index?clientCode=APOP

When I tried to find the actual wording for the Ordinance in the Agenda Packet, I was surprised to discover that Ordinance 2931, though listed as an attachment to the Staff Report, was not published in the publicly available Agenda package. That made me curious. I made a public records request and promptly received a copy of Ordinance 2931 from the very polite and efficient Clerk, Susan Bone (email: sbone@apopka.net). Nonetheless, I had to ask for it, which made me wonder how many other people would bother to do that.

Good luck to you if you decide to do the homework. You may hit the same snag that I did trying to find the document. You can read the Staff Report (spoiler alert: the May 4th Staff Report was not very informative on this Item). The May 18th Staff Report gives more detail, but still omits the actual Ordinance No. 2931 for your own review. Feel free to contact City Clerk Susan Bone to request the actual document. Maybe you are OK with Staff telling you what the Ordinance says, but I like to read these things for myself. In addition, I have to wonder whether the Mayor and Commissioners received the actual Ordinance language in their packets, but that is a sidebar for another time. 

In my opinion, the draft of Ordinance 2931 appears to be a hastily prepared, cut and paste job taken from other sources. It is poorly written, not cohesive and skips back and forth between a  mash-up of rules of conduct and penalties for disruptions (including arrest and possible charges) to how an individual must request to speak on Non-Agenda Items and Agenda Items, but does not say when or how a member of the public would request to speak about Items that might be added to the Agenda at the beginning of the meeting or raised spontaneously after the public comment period is over. After all, blurting out comments at the wrong part of the meeting could get you kicked out. The proposed Ordinance language also mentions time limitations for speaking and that a person may only speak once during public comment. That should say once on each item that is open to public comment. It also talks about submitting video in advance of the meeting, but is completely silent on whether media such as photos or PowerPoint style slides, for example, may be used as aids in presenting comments. I understand that the section on providing video in advance is being revised. I have not seen those changes, yet.

While this Ordinance is supposed to add clarity, it actually serves to confuse matters. It reads like a fully discretionary policy meant to give the Mayor and City Commissioners the power to conduct any sort of business at any time during the meeting, whether on or off a published Agenda. If you end up reading the document, look for yourself at Sec. 2-24(f)(2). The 3rd sentence reads:

“In addition, there shall be an opportunity at a meeting for members of the public to comment on items of city business that could come before the city council for action but are not on the agenda at the beginning of a meeting.”

How on earth would a person like me (that does not have ESP) know to take time off from work to get myself to a City Council meeting just in case I need to be in position to submit a Speaker's Card to comment about an item that is not on the Agenda before the meeting starts? This language should give pause to all of us. I surely hope it was an unfortunate “mistake” or oversight that will be corrected once it is called to the Council's attention.

Not to be too cynical, but if this Ordinance is really supposed to be about Decorum and Security, why is there no mention about what to do if (God forbid) the Mayor or one of the Council Members or Staff have a melt down, or go postal? As a citizen, I have to ask why the rules of Decorum should not apply to everyone in the room, including our elected officials. I don’t think I need to remind anyone that public officials are just as capable of misconduct as the rest of us nasty citizens. Everyone in the room should be able to expect the same level of safety and security, if somebody, or anybody goes off the rails.

I am skipping over the part about how Item 14 on May18, 2022 will actually be a continuation of the May 4, 2022 false start. City of Apopka Attorney, Michael Rodriquez presented the Item, explaining that it was nothing new, it is just a "codification" of a Resolution from 2016. Fortunately, a few people were paying attention and did not allow the Item to proceed directly to a Second Reading on May 18th. 

We are fortunate to have a 2nd attempt at completing the First Reading. This does not happen very often. Let’s not squander what might be one of our last chances to get this Ordinance corrected and refined before it officially goes on the books.

Is this an example of government overreach or just an innocent case of sloppy work?

I do not know. But it scares me enough to warn my fellow citizens about it. Just to be safe, let’s show up and speak out while we still have a voice. I for one do not want to regret that I stayed home and did not insist on quality work from my elected officials, management and staff. We can certainly do better than this, if we put our heads together. Thanks!

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