The City of South Miami is Silencing Citizens

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Grant Miller, Publisher

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. 

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7 Comments on "The City of South Miami is Silencing Citizens"

  1. Mr. Miller, I could not agree more. I have noticed the slow erosion of First Amendment rights in the City of South Miami. Those once favored to speak on behalf of the administration, were afforded the full five minutes and even an “over time” minute or two. Now that some of those same folks have become anxious about the administration’s infatuation with freshly poured concrete and tired of paying for pointless lawsuits, their comments are barely tolerated. The administration uses commission remarks as its time to rebut the apt observations of the citizenry, conducting a one-sided argument in order to reduce the people’s valid concerns to mindless musings. Perhaps it is true that long terms of office lead to arrogance for the people elected officials are sworn to represent. Now is the time to “throw the bums out.”

  2. Marie D. Valenti | February 9, 2018 at 6:20 pm | Reply

    For the first time in our city’s history we have a mayor that has a device installed on his dais desk that controls the public speakers microphone. The viewers at home are frequently viewing a speaker, and not hearing any sound. The mayor has become the sole authority to decide what we can hear in a public meeting. That is in addition to the manipulation of the clock, interfering with the remarks, and allowing other disruptions from some commission members. This mayor has tried to silence speakers because they do not reside in the city, has tried to relegate their comments to the end of the meeting “if there is time” and has tried to control what subjects they can address. “Phil’s Rules of Disorder” has replaced Roberts. Time for the residents to vote and return our city to a democratically run municipality with a new mayor.

  3. Mayor Philip Stoddard | February 9, 2018 at 10:00 pm | Reply

    Joseph Centorino, Director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethic and Public Trust, sent a letter of opinion to the City, advising us that it would likely violate state campaign and ethics statutes for anyone to engage in campaign speech at the public podium of a City Commission meeting. Only one person has tried to violate that opinion, an individual who was a paid political operative, who had not registered as a lobbyist as required under the County and CIty Codes of Ordinances. The City Attorney ruled that person out of order when he attempted to repeat the same material at the podium that he had previously put into paid political advertisements. He and all others were allowed and encouraged to speak from the podium at length on all matters that did not include political campaigning.

  4. Really Mayor Stoddard ? Your desk device was discovered many, many months ago and has absolutely nothing to do with this election. In spite of being outed by a well known resident who also sent photos via email, you have continued to deny speakers their constitutional right of FREEDOM OF SPEECH. Your “explanation” is another spin on the truth and re-inventing what the subject is. Your volume gimmick will be the first thing to be removed when you go off into your next political venture away from our city. Then, we’ll return to Robert’s rules of Order.

  5. Antoinette Fischer | February 12, 2018 at 2:30 am | Reply

    It should also be noted that there have been meetings at which the audio and video was turned off when the Mayor did not want the public to see or hear any incidents that might cause the public to be disturbed, such as the time he insulted Commissioner Gabriel Edmond at a workshop. Commissioner Edmond became so upset by the Mayor’s attitude that he got up from the table and rushed out of the Commission Chambers. I, and a friend witnessed the entire episode, including the shutdown of the video. We had front row seats. On another occasion, four women were in attendance at a special meeting. The Mayor refused to allow us to speak although the matter was of great concern to the public. All four of us walked up to the podium and protested, and the video was turned off. Now, several large TV screens have been installed in the Commission Chambers where meetings are held and there is one out in the lobby. Several months ago, a new policy became apparent when all screens were kept turned off so that those of us in attendance could no longer see when the video was being turned off. Those screens are now only used when there is some presentation that is approved of by the City Manager. We pay for all equipment and salaries and our rights are being taken away piece by piece. Commissioner Josh Liebman even wants to reduce the number of minutes that we are allowed to speak. I have observed the ongoing deterioration of democracy under the Stoddard/ Alexander regime at first hand as I am in the Commission Chambers very often for meetings and City Hall has become the seat of a nefarious and insidious dictatorship, even to the extent of “working around” our Charter and Ordinance and attempting to sneak in new definitions of ordinary words like “less restrictive” in order to further the agenda of this administration. Citizens, be aware of any and all meetings that pertain to changes in our Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code. Your participation is critically needed if you do not want to lose the character of our city.

  6. Philip Stoddard | February 12, 2018 at 5:00 pm | Reply

    A volume adjustment knob was installed 3 months ago, after several years of people in the Commission chamber complaining that they could not always hear a speaker at the podium. The only “secret switch” is a panic button for use if a a shooter appears in the room – I hit it once with my knee and found that it does work. Meeting chairs call the occasional a time-out in a public meeting where someone loses composure and disrupts the meeting or when a topic comes up that is likely to cause liability for the City if it is broadcast, such as when a citizen begins to discuss another citizen’s medical history. And yes, when the meeting chair calls a time-out, staff pauses the broadcast.

  7. I’m really surprised, Grant, that you wrote this the day before the mayoral election. It’s more of an opinion piece than honest reporting. I do think the reason the former Police Chief was dismissed is relevant. I do think that publishing rumors without looking into the actual situation is not part of good journalism. I do wonder why you choose to report only one side of a story. I am saddened that you, too, would indulge in the ugly smearing that has gone on this campaign season.

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