By Nancy Smith
Over the years Florida legislators have presented God-knows-how-many bills claiming “there ought to be a law” against some form of rudeness or another — against “me-first” drivers, against people who play loud music, against pet owners who don’t clean up after their animals — the list is long.
I agree. Rudeness, or a lack of consideration of others, badly needs addressing, and never more than right now.
So, forgive me if we start with my pet peeve — the bad manners of Florida lawmakers, unchecked and on display in both chambers of the Legislature every day committees meet.
This isn’t something new. I’ve noticed it for years — committee chairmen having to assert their authority ad nauseum, delivering long, tedious speeches — not once, not even twice, but sometimes several times during a meeting — forbidding members of the public from overstaying their welcome at the podium. In the end, when you count up the minutes a chairman usurps the floor telling people who drove hundreds of miles not to do what he just did, what was supposed to be a three-minute allowance to speak turns into less than two.
For example, here’s the opener from the chairman of a recent Senate committee meeting:
“We have a lot of speakers to get in today, so people, we ask you to hold your comments to under two minutes. You can always waive in support if somebody made the same point ahead of you. We want to hear everything you have to say but try to edit it down so you’re not preventing someone else from speaking. …”
No, sadly, it didn’t end there. He was in charge, and like a kid with a cherry pop in the August heat, was determined to enjoy every lick.
“All of these senators have a number of issues to get through today …” the chairman continued. “Of course, we want to hear all the testimony … I mean, in its full context … but we have limited time and call on your help to be brief. Be succinct. And as I said, waive in support or in opposition if you can …”
There were two or three more sentences before the chairman ran out of gas. None of them included telling speakers they could save time by dispensing with the obligatory thanks to committee members, staff, whoever else in Tallahassee encouraged their presence. I’m told backpats/gratitude/grovelling play well on The Florida Channel.
This is nothing but rudeness masquerading as necessity. It’s officious nonsense, frankly, a complete disrespect of the people who pay lawmakers’ salaries, many of them frightened and awestruck by the occasion and responsibility they feel. Try to imagine it from their point of view. On this particular day, as I said earlier is the norm, the chairman repeated some version of his opening statement not one, not two, but four times, stealing precious minutes that didn’t belong to him.
I thought it was time to write a rudeness story then, but got distracted with another issue. Then I witnessed Monday’s Senate Rules Committee, with David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, presiding and Vice Chair Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, riding shotgun.
The mysterious, embarrassing, outrageous manner in which this near four-hour meeting ended tipped me over the edge.
If you were there, or watched the meeting on The Florida Channel — it involved discussion on the “conscience protection” bill that religious groups in Florida say is necessary for them to deny gays’ applications to adopt — I’m betting you were as appalled as I was.
Ten-year-old Nathan Gill had traveled more than eight hours from Miami to Tallahassee to oppose the bill and give testimony. He wanted to talk about his “two dads,” saying he was “representing all foster children.” As he began to tell how nobody else would take him and his brother together — just as he began to talk about his autistic younger brother — Soto interrupted him.
In mid sentence. Never even excused himself. Never once looked at the boy.
Just delivered a little speech to Chairman Simmons about calling it a day and suddenly Simmons told Nathaniel, “We ran out of time … if we can get another time period, we want you to come back.” But the chairman was already preparing to leave his seat and his words sounded insincere.
Nathaniel was clearly confused — as if he had done something wrong. He had been in mid sentence, remember.
Before adjournment, committee member Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, suggested the boy probably didn’t understand what just happened and somebody should explain it to him. A member of staff went to him and certainly tried. He was still at the podium as members walked out of the room.
Can somebody tell me why, after nearly four hours, there wasn’t another minute to let the child finish? He wasn’t messing up or rambling on. But in an instant, Soto and Simmons shut him up and if they didn’t shatter his confidence, I would be very surprised. The meeting is recorded here.
Now, I do realize time poverty is a huge issue for lawmakers given the most to do. And I don’t think lawmakers intend to be anything but courteous to members of the public. Certainly, “welcome” is part of their vocabulary. But I wonder if they realize how feral they become as they rise to leadership positions — not all of them, but certainly many of them. All of a sudden things get in the way of real public service: self-importance, control freakiness, show-offiness, and that’s for a start.
The result is the same for the many dozens of folks every session who want to make a difference, who often drive for hours, sacrifice their time to make a single, emphatic point. It’s rudeness, and it has become a part of the culture in the Legislature. I wish lawmakers would take a good look at themselves and make an important attitude adjustment.
Nancy Smith is the editor of Sunshine State News. She started her career at the Daily Mirror and The Observer in London before spending 28 years at The Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News as managing editor and associate editor. She was president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in the mid-1990s. Reach her by email here, or follow her on twitter at @NancyLBSmith.