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Santa Rosa Commission 'Voted The Right Way'

Santa Rosa County

More than a dozen speakers convinced commissioners residents should be allowed to address them face-to-face.

More than a dozen people on Tuesday convinced Santa Rosa County commissioners to not restrict their first amendment right to free speech and to address their government with grievances.

At issue was a new policy designed to reduce the length of meetings — a recent one lasted nearly nine hours.

Speakers said they believed the five commissioners ignore the will of residents and that’s why dozens show up to speak to the men they elect. More than 50 people were in attendance when the 8:30 a.m. meeting began. They cited the county’s Land Development Code as an example: Residents and the county planning and zoning board asked to stop the clear-cutting of land by developers. The pleas and recommendations were ignored. That meeting earlier this month attracted more than 100 people and ended about 1:30 a.m. the next day.

Kim McCarthy of Milton said she hates having her time wasted. She said the commission meetings, District 4 Commissioner Dave Piech is the chairman, need structure and focus. She said the meetings are too “loosey-goosey” with speakers exceeding the four-minute time limit and commissioners talking too long and straying off topic.

Many in attendance were upset that the board last week decided to limit the public forum to one hour and to hear the public comments at the beginning of the meeting. Today’s reversal allows speakers to address the board during the public forum and when agenda items are discussed.

Piech said he was merely looking for a way to make the meetings run smoothly while giving residents the opportunity to speak to county officials and staff.

“I just want to get the county business done,” Piech said. He said although the board would return to the previous meeting format, he would reserve the right to keep the discussion on topic and to keep the meeting from being hijacked by speakers or his fellow commissioners. “We can’t devolve into other topics.”

The chairman sparred with District 3 Commissioner James Calkins, who said the public’s right to address the board should be unchecked. “I’ll spend two fricking days (listening to citizens) if you want. Let them speak 10 hours.

As the discussion continued, a few speakers directed their ire at District 1 Commissioner Sam Parker for his comments at meetings that frequently include personal and professional anecdotes. One speaker referred to him as “Mr. Storytime.”

When commissioners agreed unanimously to revoke the new policy — District 2 Commissioner Bob Cole was absent — frequent attendee and commission critic Chris Smith of Milton thanked commissioners for listening to the people who wanted to preserve their first amendment right.

“You voted the right way today,” Smith said, adding the county should dedicate an employee in the public information office to post county news on social media which would improve communication with the public.

County Administrator Dan Schebler says the county has 17 social media accounts, including emergency operations and animal control.

Once the discussion, which was prompted by Calkins, ended and the regular agenda resumed, speaker after speaker abided by the four-minute time limit. The meeting lasted about six hours.

Tom Ninestine is the managing editor at WUWF. He began August 1, 2019. Tom is a native of Geneva, New York, and a 1983 graduate of King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he studied journalism and political science. During a 29-year career in newspapers he worked for the Finger Lakes Times in his hometown; The Daily Item in Sunbury, Pennsylvania; and the Pensacola News Journal from 1998-2016.