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News Section: Opinion

You Can't Exclude the Public from Public Meetings

Published Sunday, August 3, 2014 12:10 am

This week, Manatee County Commission Chair Larry Bustle finally blew a gasket in dealing with the dissenting opinions of taxpayers who sign up to give up to three minutes of public comment during the board's twice monthly meeting. Bustle's disdain for public comment has always been obvious and his reactions have often been troubling, but at Tuesday's meeting, he jumped clear off the edge and into the abyss.

Public watchdogs are an important part of the process of good government, and were it not for a handful of dedicated citizens who commit their time and effort to participating in the process, many boondoggles would have flown under the radar in recent years. It's often a single citizen who lights the match and a few more who fan the flame that inspires the press and even government officials to take a closer look at what's going on in any particular issue.

It was citizens who discovered the shell game being run by the Manatee County School District; it was citizens who exposed the many inaccuracies and half-truths surrounding the health care sales tax and it was citizens who led the fight to prevent further ecological destruction surrounding the Long Bar Pointe development. I can go on and on.

Of course, in each of these cases there were administrators and board members who loathed them for it and couldn't contain their obvious dissatisfaction. You can see it in their eyes when the watchdogs approach the dais – Here we go again.

Like it or not, that's a part of the government process – and an important one at that. It would certainly be easier for those in power if they could conduct such dealings in private and only tell the public after the fact. Their various approvals would sail more smoothly, their ties to their benefactors who might be enriched by a project would escape scrutiny, etc. That's exactly why that's not the way we do it.

I've been watching Bill Wheeler come to that dais since I moved to Manatee County. Wow! Who is this guy? was the first thing to come to mind, the first time I heard him dressing down a board for an inept decision on an issue he seemed to be better informed about than most of the commissioners. It became a familiar sight and sentiment, and it turned out that Mr. Wheeler was just a citizen of Manatee County, who loved his community enough to dedicate a good chunk of his life to preserving its graces.

The 85 year-old Wheeler is one of a small group of such citizens, who while not compensated for their efforts like the commissioners themselves, nonetheless approach public policy with the same sort of – and often much greater – dedication and vigor. We the people need more Bill Wheelers, not less, yet it was Wheeler who bore the brunt of Bustle's rage on Tuesday.

Chairman Bustle has always been quick to shut down a member of the public who is broaching a subject he'd rather not hear or criticizing a developer who supports his hundred thousand dollar campaigns. We will not allow personal attacks is his favorite rebuttal. When it comes to one of his cronies, a "personal attack" seems to include just about anything short of a flattering toast to their accolades, and he's quick to cut a mic if someone does not immediately abide by his gag order. Katie Pierola, the mild mannered 83-year old who is a legend in the citizen watchdog world, once asked if Bustle could please tell her what she could talk about, much to the entertainment of those in attendance.

Bustle dislikes the public comment process so much, he even tried to have the already anemic three-minute limit on public commentary cut to just two. On Tuesday, he actually vowed to never let Wheeler and another member of the public give comment again, so long as he was chair! Imagine the hubris in publicly claiming you feel empowered to alter the entire democratic process, just because a couple of local businessmen bought you a seat on the board.

The public comment period is an important, and I would argue still inadequate part of the legislative process. It is often the only means average citizens who lack the access of those who stroke the big campaign checks to officials have in getting a somewhat meaningful audience for their problems, opinions and pleas, and they are permitted only a fraction of the time allotted to applicants, without the same chance for rebuttal. Whether Chairman Bustle wants them giving public comment or not, the people have spoken. They want answers and they want to be heard. The law makes it clear that at least the latter is guaranteed. Shame on him for trying to deny us of that right.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.

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I agree that a full medical and psychological evaluation of any in elected office, who cannot control his or her own speech is most likely in order.
Posted by Nancy R Dean on August 4, 2014

What is up with these time limits? Bowling Green, KY public comment has no limit. Citizens get up, say their piece and sit down taking however much time they want. Comments are politely received. And their meetings always seem to wind up much faster than the ones in Bradenton and Sarasota. Show some respect for citizens and get rid of the obnoxious time limits!
Posted by Richard C. Thomas on August 3, 2014

Like I've said many times before, Mr. Maley is not only a discerning and articulate voice for our community but a gifted writer as well! Thank you Dennis and The Bradenton Times.
A L Randall
Posted by Alan Randall on August 3, 2014

Wow. Dennis' story should be framed and hung in the commission chambers, reminding these divas and demons what democracy really is - a messy but necessary part of freedom. Perhaps Bustle's military past of blind obedience has destroyed his usefulness, and betrays his undemocratic zeal. Keep up the excellent work, Dennis. We need more of this especially with the anemic Bradenton Herald's stenographic approach to journalism.
Posted by joe kane on August 3, 2014

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