Last week I participated in one of America’s great pastimes:
Gave the government my opinion.
It was the Inverness City Council meeting and I, an Inverness resident, had thoughts on the city’s plan for a beach at Wallace Brooks Park, and relocating the boat dock from Wallace Brooks to Liberty Park.
This idea of addressing local government is somewhat new to me. During all my years at the Chronicle, I can recall only one or two occasions where I spoke before the county commission or city council as a private citizen.
Since I’ve become an ordinary retired person with a blog I don’t feel so much restraint in giving elected officials my piece.
Even though this is my local city council, I rarely attend meetings or offer an opinion unless it’s related to the parks right outside Just Wright Citrus World Headquarters on the shores of Big Lake Henderson. I write about the government for a living; I like these people but I don’t want to spend more time in a government meeting than necessary.
The highlight of every meeting is public comment. Folks can go to the microphone and say pretty much anything if it’s under 3 minutes.
Unlike the regular board business, which generally goes off without a hitch, anything can happen during public comment. You have a captive audience — five elected officials and their staff who aren’t going anywhere.
The question this week is how much weight does the local government give public comment in deciding zoning cases?
I’ve known county commissioners who would never vote against the room. Didn’t matter the issue, if the room was filled with people who wanted no they’d vote no.
(I’ve also seen local boards do just the opposite: Ignore the room and go along with what the administrator wants. That’s a whole other problem I’ll leave for another day.)
Commissioners and city council members weigh public comment with other facts to consider. Citizens lose sight of this and leap to conclusions about commissioners having their minds made up ahead of time. My experience suggests it isn’t that simple.
Here’s what I mean:
The Sugarmill Woods apartments public hearing is Thursday. I’m expecting a packed house and, with few exceptions, every single Sugarmill resident who gets up to speak will be against this zoning change.
The pressure is enormous for commissioners to reject this plan. These citizens are not seeking compromise or anyone to tell them apartments are in their best interest whether they realize it or not. They want a “no” vote and that’s the end of the story.
Well, there's another side to this debate and commissioners need to listen to both. It’s not a matter of counting noses, though citizens will try to persuade commissioners that’s exactly how they should react. The reasoning being if 50 people speak and 42 of them are in opposition, that’s an easy call for commissioners to reject the zoning.
Don’t count on that. While we haven’t yet seen Commissioner Diana Finegan in action on such a large zoning case as this one, these commissioners don’t seem the type to vote for the room simply to earn favor with citizens. Commissioners realize what’s at stake.
I have some suggestions for those showing up Thursday for public comment:
— Be polite. Speak to the chairman. Try not to get emotional, even though zoning cases can be just that. Just remember that commissioners vote on facts, not emotion.
— Know your stuff. Make no assumptions and don’t accuse the other side of wrongdoing unless you’re absolutely sure they did it.
— Be prepared for any outcome. I have no clue how the Sugarmill case will turn out, but it’s not cut and dried just because of the large opposition. That’s why we have the public hearing.
— Above all, appreciate the process. Local government is the last bastion of interaction between lawmakers and citizens. We get face-to-face time with city council members and county commissioners, neighbor with neighbor, as we address our challenges.
I spoke my piece to the Inverness City Council and they voted later to do what I didn’t want them to do. Oh well.
At least I had my say. That's all I ask.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.