TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – From the concrete to the eccentric, Floridians began bringing their ideas to the state's Constitution Revision Commission during a public hearing Wednesday, even as a voting-rights organization questioned the panel's process.
The public hearing in Orlando marked the first for the commission, which has undertaken the once-every-20-years task of proposing constitutional amendments directly to the voters for consideration in the November 2018 elections.
“The first thing that this commission is going to do is listen,” said Chairman Carlos Beruff. “Because no one has a corner on a good idea.”
Wednesday's meeting was held a little more than a week after the commission's inaugural summit and in the middle of a heated legislative session -- something that brought questions from the League of Women Voters of Florida. The group held a press conference Wednesday to highlight a wide-ranging set of concerns about the panel's procedures.
“They seem to have really rushed the scheduling this year,” said Pamela Goodman, president of the league. She noted that the last commission didn't meet until June 20.
The league also raised concerns about the commission's policy on open records and the influence of elected officials on their hand-picked members, who comprise the vast majority of the panel.
A spokeswoman for the commission defended the scheduling in an email, and noted that Beruff wrote members last week in an effort to deal with concerns about the timetable.
“Chair Beruff is working with Commissioners to balance the CRC's commitment to accomplishing as much as we can, in the short time we have, while maximizing Commissioner participation and public input,” spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice said.
The meeting itself, which lasted nearly four hours, was sometimes raucous, with the crowd cheering for some speakers and at least one being cut off when she attacked one of the commission members for his views on LGBT issues.
“I would like to bring attention to the presence of an open bigot on the commission,” said Sarah Wissig, who eventually named John Stemberger as her target.
Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, has been an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage and other causes supported by gay-rights activists.
Beruff eventually stopped Wissig.
“This is not appropriate,” he said.
There were other moments that went off the usual tracks of public policy or the constitution. One speaker argued that the commission itself was illegitimate, and that its members might be committing a felony. Another argued for getting rid of the term “marijuana” because it is a slang term for the drug. One of the earliest speakers called for the commission to defend the state from Sharia religious law practiced in some Islamic countries.
Many of the ideas were more run-of-the-mill, and the crowd tilted but was not limited to the left side of the political spectrum.
Some speakers argued that the privacy provisions in the constitution were meant to defend citizens' information, not abortion --- as courts have subsequently ruled. Others asked the commission not to erase protections for the procedure.
Several of those at the meeting asked the commission to make it easier for nonviolent felons to have their civil rights, including the right to vote, restored after they've served their sentence.
“One single, stupid decision should not define your entire life,” said Scott Cromar.
Local government officials called for preservation of local control, which has increasingly come under siege in the current legislative session.
A few audience members pushed for open primaries, which would allow voters who don't register with a political party to vote in that party's primary anyway. Debbie Smith, who moved to Florida in 1989, said she was surprised to find out that she couldn't vote in a primary if she didn't register with a party.
“As someone who refuses to choose sides, I feel disenfranchised that I cannot vote in the primaries,” she said.
The commission currently plans to hold its next meeting on April 6 in Miami-Dade County.