District 3 Commissioner James Calkins says he does not support limiting public forum to one hour nor capping Santa Rosa County Board of County Commission meetings to six hours, including the forum portion.
“We are paid well to listen to citizens who want to address or question how their local government operates, and I will stay as long as it takes to do so,” Calkins told South Santa Rosa News on Monday.
According to the State of Florida, which sets the salaries of elected officials based on population, County Commissioners receive an annual salary of $72,766.
The board has four regular monthly meetings and sometimes hosts additional hearings or workshops, such as those which take place during the annual budgeting process.
“I treat this like a full-time job,” Calkins said. “It is our job to be a servant of the people who elected us, and the people are mad over actions by this board.”
When the agenda for the board’s July 26 meeting was released Friday it included a notice, stating “all public comments will occur during the Public Input/Forum section of the agenda.”
Historically, Santa Rosa County citizens could address the board with questions or concerns during public forum or during specific agenda items.
Following a July 13 meeting which lasted nine hours, District 2 Commissioner Bob Cole during the board’s July 22 non-voting work session, said he wanted public forum pushed to the end of meetings. He also said he wanted the meetings capped at six hours long in total, suggesting board members would “lose attention” after that amount of time.
Calkins and District 1 Commissioner Sam Parker disagreed with Cole and advocated to keep public forums at the beginning of meetings.
However the board discussed limiting public input to just one hour.
“If the BOCC follows through with their plan to limit public comment to one hour, I see that as an encroachment upon our rights to redress our grievances. If the rule is four minutes per person and more than 12 people show up, that means that some people will not be allowed to speak,” said Milton resident Jerry Couey, one of 34 members of the First Amendment Foundation’s Sunshine Brigade, which advocates for open government. “I consider that a direct violation of our First Amendment”
Some locals question whether or not the board may have already violated the First Amendment by allowing certain speakers, namely developer Edwin Henry, to speak longer than the allotted 4 minutes during public forum – while denying other speakers the same length of time.
“If the BOCC moves forward with not allowing public comment during agenda items, I think it is a direct insult to the citizens who pay their salary and they all should be ashamed of themselves,” Couey added. “Just because you might the ability doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.”