Government

F*ck the First Amendment: Miami-Dade Bars Residents From Addressing Commissioners Directly

Palmetto Bay resident Catherine Viera (left) was told by Miami-Dade County Chair Jose "Pepe" Diaz (right) that she was not allowed to address her commissioner directly at the special joint public meeting on Thursday, January 20, 2022.
Palmetto Bay resident Catherine Viera (left) was told by Miami-Dade County Chair Jose "Pepe" Diaz (right) that she was not allowed to address her commissioner directly at the special joint public meeting on Thursday, January 20, 2022. Screenshots via miamidade.gov
Should taxpaying residents be able to publicly question and criticize the officials they elect to office?

When said elected officials are Miami-Dade commissioners and the public venue is a commission meeting, the answer is an unequivocal, Home Rule Charter-codified no.

At Thursday's special joint public meeting in which elected representatives from the county and the Village of Palmetto Bay sparred over a proposed bridge on SW 87th Avenue, county commission chair Jose "Pepe" Diaz interrupted at least three speakers to remind them of a procedural rule that bars them from directly addressing any individual commissioner on the dais.

Diaz first invoked the rule when Palmetto Bay resident Catherine Viera stepped up to the lectern during public comments.

"Our District 8 commissioner never once held a meeting with the village of Palmetto Bay residents prior to her last-minute move [rescheduling of the bridge item to the February 2, 2021 agenda]," Viera said, referring to commissioner Danielle Cohen Higgins, whose jurisdiction includes Palmetto Bay. "My voice was never heard."

Diaz immediately interrupted Viera. "I’m going to ask you guys for the last time. Do not single out an individual commissioner."

After Viera had finished, Diaz added, "Next time somebody mentions a person...I will cut off the mike."

While this might seem like a flagrant violation of the First Amendment and free speech, Diaz is technically correct.

According to Rule 6.04 of the Miami-Dade County Rules of Procedure, which establishes decorum for official county meetings, "All remarks shall be addressed to the Commission or committee as a body and not to any particular member thereof. No person, other than commissioners and the person having the floor, shall be permitted to enter into any discussion, either directly or through a member of the Commission, without the permission of the presiding officer. No questions shall be asked a [sic] Commissioner except through the presiding officer."
Attorney David Winker is representing Palmetto Bay residents who oppose the construction of the $3 million canal bridge that was approved by the county last year. While commissioners say the bridge provides a "more direct" route, Winker's clients contend the bridge would bring significant traffic congestion for a largely undeveloped portion of Southwest 87th Avenue that leads to a dead end. Palmetto Bay is expected to bring a lawsuit against the county, and this meeting is a requirement before one government can sue another.

Winker was taken aback when Diaz tried to keep his clients from addressing the commissioner who represents their South Miami-Dade district.

"Check your Constitutional Rights at the door to @MiamiDadeCounty Hall. No other municipality muzzles residents like this," the lawyer tweeted after the meeting. "We need more accountability, not less."

To Winker's point, the City of Miami has no such rule.

"A central feature of American democracy is engaged citizens participating in public debate of civic issues," Winker tells New Times. "Public comment provides one of the most important avenues for citizens to contribute to the debate on matters of public concern."

The county's rule, on the other hand, would prevent a resident from citing and commenting on contributions to a commissioner's campaign war chest or how they may have voted on previous item.

"This is about as bad as it gets: Residents whose taxes pay for County Hall and these commissioners' salaries are told they can't speak about the actions of their elected officials," Winker fumes. "Being held accountable and having to listen to your constituents' concerns isn't fun, but it's what is required by the law."

Winker further notes that Diaz did not invoke the rule when Palmetto Bay resident Val Snider expressed gratitude to Cohen Higgins from the podium. "I'd like to thank our commissioner for her attempt to address traffic concerns for South Dade," Snider said.

"Speakers are permitted to praise individual commissioners but shut down when they speak on any one commissioner's action. This policy is what's called a content-based restriction," Winker says. "And content-based speech restrictions are the most highly scrutinized type of restraint on free speech."

It should be noted that per the county's "Rule 6.05: Decorum," residents at county meetings are also prohibited from "clapping, applauding...in support or opposition to a speaker" and that "no signs or placards shall be allowed in the commission chamber."

Finally, "persons exiting the commission chamber shall do so quietly."
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Michael Majchrowicz is a former staff writer at Miami New Times. He studied journalism at Indiana University and has reported for PolitiFact, The New York Times, Washington Post, the Post and Courier, and Tampa Bay Times.