Manatee County commissioners: Let our citizens speak

skennedy@bradenton.comApril 9, 2014 

MANATEE -- More liberal rules governing how citizens may address the Manatee County Commission during its meetings won endorsement Tuesday.

Commissioners OK'd a motion to set the time limit for citizens speaking during public meetings to three minutes per item; they opposed a plan that would have restricted citizens' speaking time to two minutes under some circumstances.

"I've always been a proponent for public comment," said Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who urged fellow board members to grant more time and impose fewer restrictions for members of the public speaking during commission meetings.

Audience members at the County Administrative Center spoke uniformly in favor of more time and fewer limits.

"This is sunshine, and we're supposed to be about sunshine," said Lee Redfern, referring to the state's open meetings laws.

"You people never cease to surprise me, why you'd even touch the most delicate part of the constitution," said Joe Kane.

Manatee County Attorney Mickey Palmer said he would produce a final version of revisions for commissioners to review on April 22.

It will call for:

• A three-minute time limit per item for speakers at all meetings

• No maximum time limit if a speaker addresses the board more than once, except a limit of 10 minutes during public hearings if you are representing a group of people

• Speakers generally may discuss any topic at any meeting

"I think we're all looking for fairness here," said Commissioner Michael Gallen.

"I think we're all about making it as simple as possible," said Commissioner Robin DiSabatino.

Palmer said he took a fresh look at the board's existing procedures in order to conform with new state legislation passed last year that specified people be given a reasonable opportunity to speak at public meetings.

Manatee's existing rules clashed with those of the new state statute, known as the "right-to-speak" law, because local rules referred to "residents of Manatee County" when outlining who could comment, while the state statutes simply referred to "members of the public."

"You need not be a resident of this county in order to address the board at regular meetings," explained Palmer about local rules once they are updated.

A number of disputes between those attempting to speak and Commission Chairman Larry Bustle over past months also had spurred a review of the commission's rules.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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