There is something seriously wrong going on in South Miami City Hall. It doesn’t have to do with bribery or corruption. Politics in South Florida is rife with stories of politicians on the take. But this isn’t one of them.
It is something more fundamental than that. Our Founding Fathers knew what control of speech was. The British King would freely silence and even imprison those who questioned his actions. George III and every tyrant since then has understood that a people that didn’t question was easier to rule.
The First Amendment of our Constitution, besides guaranteeing the right to practice or not practice religion, guarantees that the people would have the right to free speech and to petition their government for grievances.
Our Florida Constitution carries the same guarantee. It says: “The people shall have the right peaceably to assemble, to instruct their representatives, and to petition for redress of grievances.” It seems like pretty basic stuff.
To further emphasize the importance of it, the Miami-Dade County Home Rule Charter, our local constitution, says that “any interested person has the right to appear” before both the County Commission and city commissions for the presentation of any issue within the jurisdiction of the government. The City of South Miami incorporates this provision of the Home Rule Charter into the City Charter
It could not be any clearer, from the national constitution, to the State, to the County, and into each City Hall, the right of persons to be heard must be protected and respect.
That right is everywhere, except in the City of South Miami. Here, the Commission has, with increasing frequency, agreed to silence critics, forbidding them to speak, or numbly sat by while the City Attorney denies the podium to those with sharp words for his bosses.
The City often sets aside the first portions of its meetings for citizen input. Residents can come forward with information, requests, or complaints. The County Charter allows the cities to set reasonable time limits for citizens to speak. The City of South Miami limits speakers to five minutes each.
However, for the past several years, a growing trend has been developing in the City. Take one recent example. But first, here’s some background to give this problem some context.
The City of South Miami fired a department head who had a contract with the City. The ground for his dismissal were dubious. I won’t go into the details because they aren’t relevant. That department head sued the City, being only subject to dismissal for good cause. The employee sued for breach of contract and the City, through a majority vote of the Commission and upon advice of the City Attorney, decided to fight the suit.
The employee won at trial. Doubling down on its mistake, the City took an appeal. The appellate court upheld the judgment. Now that the smoke has cleared, it looks like the City will be on the hook for damages, interest, and the employee’s attorneys’ fees. That’s on top of the fees the City paid to its outside counsel. All told, it’s going to be well over $1 million.
South Miami is a small city. The Census Bureau estimates that only 12,207 people live here. And our operating budget is about $18 million. So a judgment and expenses of over $1 million represents a significant portion of the City’s budget, more than five percent.
On January 16th, an interest person came forward during the City’s “open mic” at the beginning of a Commission meeting. He wanted to speak about this large hole in the middle of the City’s budget. The City has three choices at this point to pay the judgment. It can raise taxes. It can cut services. It can sell off assets, like City parks. But the person didn’t get a chance to speak to point that out to the Commission or to the residents of South Miami.
He was stopped because he’s exercised his First Amendment right to criticize the City outside of the Commission chamber. For that exercise of liberty, he was denied the right to address the Commission inside the Commission chamber and to raise these questions.
The City Attorney, in a misread of the federal and Florida Constitutions and the County and City Charters, rule the individual could not speak. He ruled that on the issue of who was responsible for this fiscal debacle, that there must only be silence.
The City repeated its mistake two weeks later. On February 6th, the same individual signed up to speak again. This time he was allowed to introduce himself. But he was not allowed to go any further. The City Attorney ruled that questions about the City’s handling of the lawsuit could not be asked by this person.
It is not the job of the people in a democracy to wildly cheer for their elected leaders. That is the role left to the oppressed in a system characterized by tyranny. Under a free government, under our government, the people are expected to ask hard questions. The people have the right to make their elected and appointed officials uncomfortable.
To keep the people from asking tough questions, and especially blocking those who know how to ask tough questions, is what you’d expect from the government in Havana, in Caracas, in Moscow, and Beijing. It’s not something we should expect of a government that sits on Sunset Drive.