Miami-Dade County Commission Keeps Ejecting Critics From Public Meetings

In the view of the Miami-Dade County Commission, uttering the word "damn" is more damaging than plans to defund public transportation, cut bus routes, or jack up police spending. At a public meeting over the county's $7 billion taxpayer budget last night, a man was kicked out — and escorted away by cops — for simply telling the commissioners they "don't give a damn" about poor people. This came after commissioners floated the idea of cutting entire transit routes to save money.

In fact, activists and critics say the man's ejection is just the latest evidence that Commission Chair Esteban "Steve" Bovo routinely violates the First Amendment with a hair-trigger for throwing people out of public meetings.

Over the last two budget meetings in September, a handful of local citizens have been cut off, had their microphones muted, or been escorted out of the room by police for simply criticizing elected officials. Last night's speaker, identified as James Valsiand by the Miami Herald, was apparently booted for saying "damn" but Bovo has ejected others for simply being critical of politicians in general, including one local activist who called to Donald Trump's deportation policies as "fascist."

While the County Commission does have a policy of "decorum" that speakers must adhere to, critics say those rules often seem to amount to "disagreeing with Bovo."

Bovo was not available today to speak with New Times. Early in the afternoon, an assistant in his district office said Bovo was working in his downtown office; yet just half an hour later, that office said Bovo was actually at the district office. (To be fair to Bovo, last night's budget meeting went until nearly 4 a.m.)

The county's Rules of Procedure give the chairperson leeway to eject people if they're being rowdy or disruptive. But the rules are vague enough that they can basically mean whatever the current county chair wants them to. Section 6.05 of the county rulebook states that any "person making impertinent or slanderous remarks or who becomes boisterous while addressing the Commission shall be barred from further appearance before the Commission by the Presiding Officer, unless permission to continue or again address the Commission is granted by the majority vote of the Commission members present." What the terms "slanderous" or "boisterous" really mean are left to the lawmakers.

In perhaps the most galling aspect of the rulebook, citizens are barred from addressing (or criticizing) commissioners by name.

"All remarks shall be addressed to the Commission or committee as a body and not to any particular member thereof," Rule 6.06, subsection J reads. County Attorneys regularly read these two subsections to meeting attendees before letting the public address the commission.

The rules have existed for years, but anecdotally, it appears that Bovo has a much shorter fuse than previous Commission Chair Jean Monestime. But this is far from the first county body accused of needlessly, or perhaps illegally, silencing public speech: In July 2016, local teachers complained to WLRN, Miami's NPR affiliate, that the Miami-Dade School Board's similar "no names" policy served no purpose but to silence critics. In that instance, multiple first-amendment law scholars said there's a compelling argument that silencing critics like this isn't legal at all.

“To say the reason why we have this rule is to prevent defamation, that’s a completely inadequate justification,” Rick Garnett, a First Amendment scholar at the University of Notre Dame’s law school, told WLRN last year. The radio station noted that courts in Illinois and Virginia have struck down laws similar to those in place at the school-board level.

The County Commission operates under similar rules. In some cases, it's unclear what rule Bovo even cited to force someone out of the room.

On September 19, activist Bean Blackett with the Miami chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America was escorted out of a public meeting by police just for calling one of Donald Trump's policies "fascist."

In a clip the Miami DSA posted online, Blackett hadn't mentioned anyone by name, and was in the middle of making a cogent point about the money he felt Miami-Dade was wasting complying with Trump's "sanctuary city" immigrant crackdown.

"I was here back in January-February, when you guys turned your backs on our undocumented brothers, sisters, neighbors, and friends, when you complied with Trump's fascist detainer policy," Blackett said from the lectern. "Your logic back then, was that, if we don't, he's gonna —"

Bovo cut him off.

"Sarge! Sarge!" Bovo called to the officers in the room. "Ask him to please leave. Thank you."

Blackett told New Times via phone today that he had no clue why Bovo felt the need to cut him off. He added that when he got kicked out, the police forced him to give his contact information in order to write up a full report.

"I was not pleased about that," Blackett tells New Times. "I think they did it because I used the word 'fascist,' but I didn’t even call anyone a fascist. I said Trump’s detainer policy was fascist. You can disagree with that, but I didn’t call anyone a fascist on the commission or in the administration."

He added: "Obviously, I think Bovo's a massive prick, but I'm not a constitutional-law guy and I don't know if what he did was legal or not."

Annother local activist — Andrea Mercado, the executive director of the activist group New Florida Majority, according to the Miami Herald — was cut off at the September 19 meeting for criticizing Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez's response to Hurricane Irma. The group criticized Gimenez's administration for allegedly not helping feed or house enough poor residents during the storm — but Bovo refused to let the group's leader make that exact point at a public meeting where Gimenez was sitting in the room.

Mercado spoke calmly, respectfully, and made critically important points well within the public interest. Minus referencing Gimenez by name, it's unclear what she did to upset Bovo. (The incident also smacks of sexism and mansplaining.)

Here's the full interaction:

"As we went door-to-door we found families who did not have the resources to evacuate, who did not have transit to get to shelters, who did not have money to prepare or purchase supplies, and in the days after the storm, families went hungry," Mercado said. "Elders suffered from the heat, people with diabetes were desperately asking for ice for their insulin and the level of need was reprehensible. It didn't need to be this way. Miami is one of the most unequal cities in the nation, and we did not have to have one of the most unequal recovery and relief efforts. The events of the past week have demonstrated that the mayor has failed to adequately plan and protect the most vulnerable communities. Pre-storm, we asked the mayor to ensure that federal, state, and county resources —"

Bovo cut her microphone mid-sentence. ("Reclaiming my time," Mercado joked, referencing California Rep. Maxine Waters' now-infamous shutdown of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin in July.)

"Stop the clock for a second," Bovo said. "Let's try to be respectful. I know you may have anger." (At this, the crowd groaned at Bovo.) "Let's just try to be respectful. That's all I ask of you."

The incident, again, implies that being nice to the mayor is a more pressing matter to public officials than ensuring that poor people don't suffer in the aftermath of a hurricane.

In response to the ejections last night, local documentary filmmaker Billy Corben changed his Twitter avatar today to an image of Cuban communist Che Guevara — with Bovo's face photoshopped over Che's.

"If he had any shame, he should be ashamed of himself," Corben tells New Times. "And the other commissioners on the dais, who sit silently and fail to speak up for their constituents, are culpable in this unconstitutional charade that will unquestionably end in litigation."

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