The Coastal Star

Highland Beach: Public comment time moved back to start of meetings, as a test

By Rich Pollack

Highland Beach residents will once again get a chance to tell elected officials what’s on their minds without having to wait hours at a public meeting — at least for about 60 days.
During the summer, commissioners voted 3-2 to cut public comments from five minutes to three minutes and to move them toward the end of the meeting.
Now, after several months of long meetings and some push-back from residents, the commission is partially reversing course and bringing public comments back to the beginning of the meeting on a trial basis. The comments, however, will still be limited to three minutes.
“People should always have a chance to speak their mind,” said Commissioner Elyse Riesa, who along with then-Mayor Carl Feldman voted in August against moving public comment to the end of the meeting. “The commission needs to know what residents have to say before we vote on an issue.”
The decision to reduce the time the public had to speak — and move public comments from the beginning of the meeting — came after former Vice Mayor Bill Weitz used his then five minutes of public comment time to lash out at current commissioners. After speaking, Weitz would immediately leave.
During one meeting Weitz was asked to leave, but commissioners thought moving the public comments to the end of the meeting would be the best way to solve the problem.
That led some residents to complain that many people were being punished because of the actions of a few.
“A minor issue with a verbose citizen should not change the entire procedure,” resident John Boden said at the time.
With some meetings lasting four or five hours, few residents remained to the end to express their concerns.
In agreeing to allow public comments at the beginning of meetings, as well as at the end of meetings on agenda items only, commissioners continued to stress the need for civility.
“Decorum needs to be observed,” Commissioner Rhoda Zelniker said.
To that end, Vice Mayor Alysen A. Nila suggested the commission adopt an ordinance, similar to one passed by elected officials in St. Augustine, that would in essence legislate civility.
The St. Augustine ordinance gives the commission the authority to have a person who violates rules of decorum removed from the public meeting.
“The speaker may present his or her viewpoint in this limited public forum without using terminology or gestures that cause a disruptive environment for public officials in the discharge of their duties or cause a disruptive environment hostile to the participation of other members of the public,” the ordinance states.
The St. Augustine ordinance lists seven rules that speakers before the elected body must comply with, including one that addresses content.
“The speaker must avoid making irrelevant, repetitive, personal, impertinent or slanderous comment,” the ordinance says.
Town Manager Marshall Labadie said commissioners will discuss the need for a similar ordinance during the next few months, while evaluating the success of returning public comment to the beginning of meetings.

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