By Rich Pollack
Loud, sometimes accusatory tirades from a former vice mayor have led Highland Beach town commissioners to adopt policies that some say make it more difficult for residents to speak before their elected officials.
Since losing his bid for re-election in March, former Vice Mayor Bill Weitz has been appearing at Town Commission meetings and using the allotted five minutes per person for public comment to lash out against commissioners. After speaking, Weitz immediately leaves the meeting.
Hoping to muzzle Weitz, commissioners last month voted 3-2 to reduce the time residents have to speak before the commission from five minutes to three minutes. In addition, commissioners moved the public comments from the beginning of the meeting toward the end and limited comments only to agenda items during workshop meetings.
Recent commission meetings have run as long as five hours, with few if any residents staying until the meetings are adjourned.
For his part, Weitz thinks moving public comment to the end of the meeting and reducing the time to speak is “clearly an attempt to limit free speech.”
“The mantra of four members of the commission has always been to emphasize open and public comment and to increase transparency with residents,” he said. “Since they have become the majority, the policies they’ve implemented have allowed them to conduct business without any public input or scrutiny.”
The decision to scale back public comments has drawn push-back from some residents, who say the commission is overreacting to one resident’s behavior.
“This is the only time we in the public have an opportunity to express to you, our governing body, our opinions, ideas and desires,” John Boden, who attends most meetings, told commissioners. “Short-term issues that may be occurring should not determine the long-term policy of this commission.”
Boden said he understands the commission’s frustration with Weitz’s outbursts but doesn’t think other residents should have their comments restricted because of the actions of one individual.
“A minor issue with a verbose citizen should not change the entire procedure,” Boden said.
Some commissioners, however, think it is Weitz’s behavior that is limiting the opportunity for people to speak before the commission.
“People won’t come to commission meetings because they’re afraid,” Commissioner Rhoda Zelniker said. “I have people asking me why we don’t have metal detectors.”
Commissioner Elyse Riesa, who along with Mayor Carl Feldman voted against the changes, said she thinks all residents should have the opportunity to share their views with their elected officials. Others say there is still an opportunity at all commission meetings for public comment.
“No one is taking away their right to speak,” said Vice Mayor Alysen Africano Nila.
Feldman countered, however, saying that moving comments to the end of long meetings will in essence have that effect.
“Public comment at the end of the meeting is going to eliminate any comment,” he said.
During discussions of bringing decorum back to commission meetings, commissioners said one reason changes were needed was to bring the town’s policies in line with those of other municipalities.
With the new time limit, Highland Beach joins most other communities in south Palm Beach County that have a three-minute cap on public comments. However, an informal check by The Coastal Star shows that five of eight local municipalities — including small towns and larger cities — allow public comment at the beginning of meetings.
Most of the communities, especially the small towns, also allow public comment during discussion of specific agenda items, something that Highland Beach does not do.
Both Boden and Weitz said they are concerned about the commission limiting public comment only to agenda items during workshop meetings.
Weitz says that would give residents only one opportunity a month — at regular commission meetings — to bring issues or comments to the public forum.
“Now they want to tell the public what they can and can’t talk about,” he said.
Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman, who voted for the changes, said she is watching to see whether the changes result in a return to civility at the meetings.
“This is an attempt to better serve the public,” she said. “If it doesn’t, the issue could be revisited.”
How others handle public comment
Ocean Ridge: The public can speak during general public comment for three minutes at the beginning of the meeting and again on issues prior to a vote.
Briny Breezes: The public can speak during general public comment for three minutes at the end of the meeting and is allowed to comment before votes and on multiple agenda items.
Manalapan: The public can speak during general public comment for three minutes toward the end of the meeting, but will be allowed to speak at the beginning if there is a big turnout. The public is also allowed to comment on agenda items as they arise.
South Palm Beach: The public can speak during general public comment for three minutes at the end of the meeting, and public comment is always allowed before a vote.
Gulf Stream: The public can speak during general public comment for three minutes at the beginning of the meeting, and can comment during discussion of any issue.
Boca Raton: The public can speak during general public comment for five minutes toward the end of the meeting (but the vice mayor has asked to consider moving it closer to the beginning because people leave). The public is not allowed to comment during discussion of individual items except when public hearings open.
Delray Beach: The public can speak during general public comment at the beginning of the meeting for three minutes (or six minutes if representing a group with more than six members present). The public is not allowed to comment during discussion of individual items except when public hearings open.
Boynton Beach: The public can speak during general public comment for three minutes at the beginning of the meeting, and public comment of each agenda item is allowed prior to commission discussion.
— Rich Pollack