EDITORIAL: Limiting Speech at Commission Meetings Is a Bad Idea
City Needs Two-Way Communication Now More Than Ever
Last updated 1/4/2023 at 12:55pm
Stifling Dissent is Not a Solution
The essential freedoms that we often take for granted as Americans set us apart from much of the world, where speaking out against a government action or official can bring harsh responses. More than ever, speaking out is needed in Lake Wales.
There is no better forum for sharing concerns and ideas about the course of our community than the meetings of the City Commission.
Now, under a proposed resolution, Lake Wales citizens may be prohibited from applauding or challenging official narratives at city commission meetings.
The sudden insistence by Mayor Jack Hilligoss during the December 20 meeting that "Amen-ing and clapping is not appropriate" was unprecedented.
The tradition of applause at commission meetings has existed, no doubt, for as long as the city itself.
The apparent difference at that moment was that citizens were applauding remarks by Commissioner Terrye Howell in opposition to a proposed resolution initiated by Hilligoss himself.
Citizens clearly objected to the mayor's order. The refusal of the 30 residents in the audience to comply with Hilligoss's sudden rule-making led to him ordering police to clear the commission chambers, an action some interpreted as "heavy-handed." (See News coverage here)
The resolution Hilligoss has proposed would require citizens to "swear or affirm, under penalty of perjury" and sign a written affidavit before being allowed to speak to the commission. That process would have to be completed before the start of the meeting.
An Unnecessary Black Eye for Lake Wales
The incident and resolution give a poor impression of city government, and an unwanted black eye at a time when city staff is trying to increase public involvement and input.
Citizen comments under the proposed resolution would be limited to three minutes, and all speakers to 30 minutes. Allowing for time between speakers, no more than nine could be heard unless the commission extends the time by majority vote, and then they would be limited to one extension of 15 minutes.
Recent controversial agenda items have drawn up to an hour of comment. Some voices would be silenced by the rule.
Also silenced are the voices of those who reside in neighboring communities such as Highland Park, Babson Park, Dundee, Winter Haven, or Polk County areas not served by city utilities, even if city projects will affect them.
The resolution would further give Hilligoss the right to control which topics citizens might address, ending the long-standing ability of citizens to air grievances or complaints.
City Commission meetings are not overly long, and rarely last two hours, but a new policy of daytime workshop meetings has commissioners discussing agenda items at a time when most working citizens cannot attend.
Winter Haven's Policies Are Rational
By contrast, the neighboring Winter Haven City Commission, serving twice the population, allows "any person" to address their commission "on any matter of public concern." No strict time limit is given in their ordinance.
Citizens may also request to be included as presenters in the Winter Haven meeting agenda, and even address an agenda item at the time it is discussed. Lake Wales would prohibit those options.
Commissioners Should Be Good Listeners
A recent $2,400 commission pay raise, adopted on a 3-2 vote with the support of Hilligoss. Commissioner Daniel Williams, and interim Commissioner Danny Krueger, should more than compensate them for the time required to listen to citizens. Yet the same three commissioners have voiced support for the proposed restrictions.
Changing the rules that allow citizens to address their government is an action that requires the deepest consideration of the consequences. It should not be undertaken lightly, or for personal motivations.
The question may be decided at the upcoming City Commission meeting, beginning at 6:00 pm Tuesday, January 3.
Support of government relies on the trust of the public that their concerns are being heard and considered. The proposed resolution will do irreparable harm to that trust.
We strongly oppose adoption of the proposed resolution.