It’s time to call Miami-Dade County’s Rule 6.04 what it really is: the anti-criticism rule.
Here’s how it works. If you go to a county commission meeting, you can stand up and address the members during the public hearing portion of the meeting. It’s a public meeting, right? And they’re your elected officials. Of course you can address them.
But watch out. If you dare to direct those comments to your commissioner — or any commissioner — by name, you could end up crosswise with commission chair Jose “Pepe” Diaz, chief enforcer of the county rule that prohibits speakers from directly addressing any commissioner on the dais.
The rule says that, “All remarks shall be addressed to the commission or committee as a body and not to any member thereof.” And Diaz has taken that to mean that you can’t talk directly to your own commissioner when he or she is sitting on the dais.
Never mind that you’re probably a taxpayer, someone who forks over the money that the commission spends. Never mind that one of those commissioners is supposed to represent you. Never mind, even, that this is the only time that commissioners must, by law, listen to their constituents.
Next thing you know, they’ll tell us we can’t look them in the eye or they’ll smite us.
Free speech rights
And yet watch that rule dissolve in a congratulatory haze the minute the speaker wants to lavish praise on a commissioner by name.
It’s hypocrisy — and probably also a violation of the First Amendment.
The issue became particularly obvious last week during a special meeting between the county and the Village of Palmetto Bay about a canal bridge. Commissioners have approved the bridge. Residents say it will bring too much traffic to a largely undeveloped area.
The Miami New Times reported that Diaz interrupted at least three speakers to remind them they could not address their remarks to a specific commissioner. Miami Herald reporter Doug Hanks tweeted that Diaz told the speakers: “I’m going to ask you guys for the last time. Do not single out an individual commissioner.”
And yet Diaz did not invoke the rule when a speaker thanked Commissioner Danielle Cohen Higgins for an attempt to address the concerned neighbors’ traffic concerns.
David Winker, a lawyer representing the homeowners, told the Editorial Board that the rule, as it’s being interpreted by the commission, amounts to “classic, content-based restriction” on free speech.
“You should be able to go in front of your county officials, in the County Hall that your taxes paid for, to address them on issues of public concern,” he said. He said the way the county is using this rule violates both the Florida Constitution and the U.S. Constitution.
The decorum rule
We’re not advocating for the commission to allow bad behavior by the public. But there’s already a rule for that, 6.05, the “decorum” rule. It’s pretty strong, too. It says that anyone who makes “impertinent or slanderous remarks or who becomes boisterous” may be barred from that meeting and others afterward, until the majority of the commission votes to let them back in. “Clapping, applauding, heckling or verbal outbursts” are prohibited. No signs or placards are allowed. Neither is the use of cell phones. If you leave the chambers, well, you’d better do so “quietly.”
That covers people who are overly aggressive or even impolite. So why can’t constituents — the people who vote commissioners into office — address their remarks to an elected official on the dais in Miami-Dade County?
We asked Diaz’s office why the rule was needed and how long it had been around. His response left a lot to be desired. He said the county’s rules “have been in place for as long as I can remember.” He said it was his job to enforce them, also known as the “I just work here” defense. And then he quoted Rule 6.04 to us.
We’re not sure why he didn’t answer the main question, on why the rule is needed at all. Were we being too “impertinent” with our questions? Perhaps we should have addressed him as “Your Highness.”