One would think that elected officials have a duty to hear out the very people who elected them.
While this should be expected, it is not the case in Lee County.
Don Eslick, founding member of community-based advocacy group Lee Future, explained: “Meaningful engagement and input by citizens has been eliminated by this Board of County Commissioners and County Administration. Beginning in 2013, this Board ended Management and Planning meetings. They replaced them with ‘workshops’ with County Commissioners and staff but with NO public comment permitted.
“At these workshops, the County Commissioners reach a consensus about the issue, essentially deciding what they want to do before they ever hear from the public. When the issue is put on the agenda for a vote, public comment is just pro forma since the County has already decided what it’s going to do.”
This trend is very concerning, especially for those who believe that the best decisions are reached with the input of the public.
Public comment as well as outside experts can often provide the Board with a different perspective than staff. Often, people who work for you tend to tell you what they think you want to hear. Members of the public and outside experts are freer to speak their minds. For good decision-making, the Commission needs to hear from all three of these types of voices.
Not only do the County Staff and Commissioners not welcome public input, in some cases it’s even illegal.
Specifically, Section 2-191 of the Lee County Development Code makes it illegal to contact a County Commissioner about a zoning case. Maximum criminal penalty for doing so is a $500 fine and/or 60 days in jail.
One Gateway resident learned this the hard way in 2018 when they emailed County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass voicing their concern about a zoning change. They received a response saying it was unlawful to contact Commissioners regarding a rezoning case and advising them that further attempts at correspondence could result in legal action.
It’s important to note that Lee County is the only County in Florida that makes it illegal for residents to communicate with their elected officials during the zoning process.
This prohibition, originally instituted in the late 1980s, was intended to prevent applicants or their lobbyists from attempting to influence County Commissioners concerning a pending zoning change or appeal of an administrative decision. In a complete reversal of intent, this provision is now being used to inhibit public comment from concerned citizens on those very same requests.
Florida is ranked below the national average in terms of its “civic health,” meaning the many ways citizens participate and that institutions work together in improving community life.
Florida ranks 47th in the percentage of its population that attends public meetings.
The Florida Chamber Foundation said, “Citizens engaged in their communities are vital, not just because engagement fosters trust in public institutions and legitimacy in public processes, but also because it is correlated to a strong educational system, a competitive workforce, and a dynamic economy.”
Eslick added: “This is about more than civic health and the economy. This comes down to our quality of life in Lee County. Actions of the County staff and Commissioners are undemocratic in nature.
“The citizens of Lee County deserve better from their elected officials.”
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