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Free speech is under attack in Gainesville

OPINION

BY RAY WASHINGTON

Days after publication of an earlier article about a plan by Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe and his confederates to restrict public participation at future city commission meetings, Poe shaved the beard he has worn as mayor for the last few years. The earlier Chronicle article was illustrated with a rendering of the famous Stone Mountain Georgia bas relief homage to Confederate States of America leaders Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, re-imagined as a scene in which a bearded Poe, metaphorically depicted on horseback, leads 2019 Mayors Pro Tem Harvey Ward and Adrian Hayes-Santos into battle against the Gainesville public. At press time, The Chronicle has received no information that Ward or Hayes-Santos have shaved their beards.

The evening of December 5 may be remembered as the start of a public participation Civil War in Gainesville.

At the last regular meeting of the 150th anniversary year of the City Commission’s 1869 founding, a confederacy led by Mayor Lauren Poe and commissioners Adrian Hayes-Santos and Harvey Ward led an assault on Gainesville’s Government-in-the-Sunshine tradition.

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More than a dozen residents begged commissioners to honor Gainesville’s public comment customs.

Among them was retiree Brian O’Brien–one of a number of retirees in their 60s, 70s, and 80s that Poe this year has ejected from City Commission meetings under armed threat of incarceration. O’Brien removed his hat at the podium in memory of Jimmy Adkins, a legendary Florida Supreme Court justice and the son of Progressive Era Mayor James C. Adkins. Adkins died 25 years ago.

Adkins, O’Brien said, “was a champion of the public’s right to speak.”

It is the 50th anniversary of Adkins’ first year on the high court, when he authored the first of a series of influential Florida Supreme Court opinions that have made Florida a national model for effective open government.

In 1969, in Broward County v. Doran, Adkins ruled in favor of the public, whose public meeting participation local government officials had tried to limit.

“The right of the public to be present and to be heard during all phases of enactments by boards and commissions is a source of strength in our country,” Adkins wrote. “One purpose of the Sunshine Law was to maintain the faith of the public in governmental agencies. Regardless of their good intentions, these specified boards and commissions, through devious ways, should not be allowed to deprive the public of this inalienable right to be present and to be heard at all deliberations wherein decisions affecting the public are made.”

But Poe cut O’Brien off.

“The right of the public to be present and be heard …”

“Mr. O’Brien, your time has expired. Your time has expired.”

Telford Cartwright did better with the timing, but he had no better luck altering the course set by the City Commission leaders.

Cartwright suggested the leaders’ favored proposed rule to require members of the public to register as a pre-condition to being permitted to speak felt to him as it must have felt to some in “1868 in all Southern former Confederate states,” when laws “passed by Democratic state governments after the Civil War” included “black codes… and one of those black codes were that black people could not peacefully assemble.”

Cartwright concluded: “Now why am I the only black man here in the audience? Is there something strange about this? History has a way of repeating itself. That is my comment.”

Poe replied: “Thank you. Could I have the next speaker?”

The next speaker was retiree Bob Chewning.

“It’s our job to participate, and this is the results of that participation, but you want to restrict that, or control it, or organize it,” Chewning said. “It’s embarrassing. Thank you.”

Poe replied: “Thank you. Could I have the next speaker?”

The next speaker was Tyra Edwards, a rental property manager and former District 1 City Commission candidate who was among the three dozen residents who had pleaded with the commission in September not to raise electric rates and fees. Edwards earlier had told commissioners that, in the previous month, 25% of renters in the properties she managed had their electricity cut off because they were unable to pay their increased electric bills.

“I think there’s an uncomfortableness that you feel from us when we come to you,” Edwards told commissioners, before concluding: “You know, there has to be a better way to have some better communication with you all so when we come here we won’t feel alienated and then you won’t feel attacked.”

Poe replied: “Thank you. Next speaker please.”

After more of the same sort of exchanges between the public and Poe, the commission approved the public participation limitations championed by the confederated leaders.

Across town, at city-owned Evergreen Cemetery, final resting place of a hundred Confederate veterans, all was quiet at the pristine tall white marble monument erected in honor of Poe’s progenitor, 1869 Gainesville Mayor Sam Finley, a Confederate veteran on whose monument is inscribed “He kept the faith” above an iron Confederate States of America cross that proclaims in Latin: “God will Avenge.”

In a less celebrated corner of the cemetery, under a neglected granite headstone, Jimmy Adkins may have been turning in his grave.