Lake Wales City Commission Tightens Rules on Public Speaking During Meetings
Rule Adopted Despite Vocal Public Opposition
Last updated 1/13/2023 at 12:08pm
New requirements will be faced by those wishing to speak during the public access portion of Lake Wales City Commission meetings following action taken Tuesday.
On a 3-2 vote the commission approved a resolution providing for a registration form to be completed by each speaker prior to the meeting containing their personal information and the purpose and topic of their statement.
Commission chambers were filled during the meeting with several forced to watch a television feed from the lobby. Some 20 persons spoke regarding the proposal at the beginning of the meeting. Two supported it, the rest raised a host of arguments against it.
A meeting on the same proposal two weeks ago was ended without a vote after a display of civil disobedience. Resident Catherine Price at that time said that the resolution was "changing the fundamental nature of Lake Wales."
A proposal to limit presentations to three minutes was stricken from the new rules because it conflicts with an existing city ordinance allowing five minutes per speaker. A provision requiring each speaker to sign a sworn affidavit "under penalty of perjury" was then stricken from the resolution in the face of vocal citizen opposition.
Among those speaking in opposition to the resolution were suspended City Commissioner Kris Fitzgerald, who is awaiting action by Governor Ron DeSantis to end her suspension after being found not guilty of all charges in a jury trial in October.
Also speaking in opposition was recent mayoral candidate Tammy James, along with several prominent civic leaders and activists.
Terry Christian spoke in opposition to the resolution, saying that he believed the commission should "lead, love, listen, and learn." He pointedly challenged Commissioner Williams while wearing a Williams campaign shirt bearing that slogan. "Get in touch with the people, don't break down unity." He was also critical of the stated need for discipline. "We're not hoodlums," he said.
Resident Charlene Bennett said that "intimidation is the purpose" of the new resolution, while frequent commission watcher Juanita Zwaryczuk said that her 20 years of experience as a civics and history teacher gave her the perspective that the rule is only "growing disdain for your leadership."
Two utility customers were informed by Hilligoss that they were not allowed to speak during the meeting. It is unclear whether those individuals will now be limited to speaking when the topic of utilities is already on the agenda, a rare occurrence.
Resident Stephen James said that the resolution was a "solution to a problem that doesn't exist," pointing out that commission meetings typically last only 90 minutes, and that "comments are a vital part of that time."
The resolution, proposed by Mayor Jack Hilligoss in a workshop session several weeks ago, is intended to limit speakers to topics already on the commission agenda. Only city residents and utility customers will be permitted to speak, and the latter only to utility issues.
When citizen input was concluded and a motion top approve already on the floor, Deputy Mayor Robin Gibson suggested that the resolution be replaced by a "policy" that would allow more flexibility in enforcement. He ultimately voted against the resolution, as did Commissioner Terrye Howell.
The three votes in favor came from Hilligoss, along with Commissioner Daniel Williams and interim Commissioner Danny Krueger, who is filling Fitzgerald's seat during her suspension. Krueger, Williams and Hilligoss have less than three years combined experience on the commission.
Gibson and Howell, who opposed the change, have a combined 14 years of experience on the commission.